Stroke of genius

Julian Casablancas goes it alone
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  January 5, 2010

ART IN A CAGE "I could have done something that sounds like the Strokes, and maybe I should have. It would have been the smart thing to do — if I were a businessman."

Prep rally: Rock's rich history of boarding-school brats. By Daniel Brockman.
Julian Casablancas is in control, for better or worse. Better, in the sense that he is finally seeing the release of his debut solo album, Phrazes for the Young (RCA), in which he steps out of the stripped-down style of the Strokes — his blockbuster unit for the past decade — and unveils a kaleidoscopic world of lush dreamscapes, arpeggiated classicism, and haunting balladry. Worse, in that for this guardedly reserved frontman, having your name on the marquee means it's that much easier to second-guess yourself.

"To be honest, with this record I wanted to go out there, musically, but I was scared," he says. "Scared that people would think that it was this weird vanity solo avant-garde-wanna-be thing. And I think that, actually, I was wrong."

Wrong or not, the resulting album is a bold, baroque masterstroke from a restless musician temporarily freed from the democratic constraints of bandhood. Within the Strokes, Casablancas always struck an odd pose between screaming abandon and shrinking discomfort. Now, he finds himself closely evaluating his musical moves so as not to repeat himself.

"I could have probably done something that sounds like the Strokes — that I could have done easily. And maybe I should have. I'm saying that somewhat sarcastically, but success-wise, it would have been the smart thing to do — if I were a businessman."

Better for us that he's not. If a typical Strokes song is a Tetris-like fit of guitar, bass, drums, and crooning vocals with nary an ounce of air to spare, then Phrazes is like a prolonged exhalation — an explosion of styles and textures that maintains an organic flow. "4 Chords of the Apocalypse" has a loping gentleness that tips its hat to Motown, but it also includes a piercing lead break that sounds like Brian May and Tom Scholz in a laser battle. "Glass" begins like a trip-hop tiptoe through the clouds, only to dive-bomb into a spiral of classical trills and fractal runs of guitar and organ. Lead single "11th Dimension" begins tidy and spry and lo-fi (imagine a Miami Sound Machine demo) before spinning into a vortex of triumphant guitars and clobbering drums. The constant is Casablancas's instantly recognizable voice, once buried beneath chugging garage chords and muffled in distortion, now clarion clear and gliding atop each track.

Casablancas was just as much in control of the Strokes' lauded 2001 debut, Is This It (RCA), as he is with Phrazes — he didn't just write all the songs, he wrote the solos, too. "I had a specific idea of how I wanted it to sound. I wanted the vocals to sound really messed-up. But with this record, the vocals are doubled and more confident, and I found a way to make them work with things like polyrhythmic drums and melodic keyboards."

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