Phrazes for the Young
In almost every way, Phrazes for the Young is the record that we all wish The Strokes had made after Is This it. The band’s classic 2001 debut was followed by a decent – albeit predictable – continuation of their garage-heavy sound on 2003’s Room on Fire, then a baffling jumble on 2006’s First Impressions of Earth. Now, almost a decade after Julian Casablancas and gang made Chuck Taylors cool again, those early lofty expectations are finally fulfilled. The solo debut from their frontman is a deranged epiphany on which Casablancas reemerges as an inspired rock genius – and not-so-subtly proves, with the others absent, that The Strokes are holding him back.
At once fresh yet a throwback to the Moog-filled ’70s and ’80s, Phrazes occupies a universe apart from the spare sounds of early Strokes. Casablancas has plunged headlong into a complex synth daze, furthering his development as a master of repurposing. If the earlier Strokes canon was ‘My Generation’, Phrazes is ‘Baba O’Riley’. And while ‘River of Brakelights’ – a paranoid, pumping surge – owes as much to The Who
as it does to LCD Soundsystem, the song also recalls the pulsating drive of ‘Hard to Explain’ from Is This it. Similarly, the frightening opening of ‘Ludlow St’ is pure Kubrickian psychedelia, but the recollections
are vintage hungover Casablancas.
A raw rock element lurks beneath the synthetics, an evolution becomes clear, and from a great rock ’n’ roll writer come phrases that were more than worth the wait.
Colin St. John. Available online.
Christmas in the Heart
This is studio album number 34, in which Dylan, arguably the most important songwriter of the past 50 years, bangs out 14 perplexing tracks and baffles everyone. No change there, then, but the fact that his choice of songs this time round are Christmas faves has caused some consternation – the only person who remains unsurprised is probably Dylan himself.
First things first: Christmas in the Heart is a charity album – all proceeds are going to the Feeding America foundation – so critics thus far have kept the gloves on. But the truth is there’s not a lot here that deserves slamming. If you’re a fan of The Pogues’ ‘Christmas in New York’, then Dylan’s alleycat growl will have you feeling merrily festive, especially on standards that presumably rang around the Zimmerman family home back in their heyday. ‘Winter Wonderland’ is as tender as his ragged voice box will these days allow, but benefits greatly from his old tramp croon. This also works a treat on ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’, and, bizarrely, any of the other songs that deal with the fat man in red.
The only time the album comes unstuck is when the singer tackles some of the bigger Victorian carols – songs that beg for a choir rather than the voice of a urine-stained down-and-out. ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, in particular, is something of a challenge for both singer and listener, Dylan exuding all the charm of a throat cancer victim damning the jingle-jangle morning with his final croak.
Dylan’s last four albums have been a triumphant return to form, and it’d be a cruel listener that dismisses this collection as anything more than downtime fun. He’s a hard travellin’ man, is Dylan, so why begrudge him
a bit of festive cheer before he gets on with the serious business of living the life of a legend?
Jon Wilks. Available online.