So, Julian Casablancas has finally decided to take after most of his fellow Strokes and go it alone. On the singer’s website, a preview video for his debut solo album Phrazes For The Young, due October 20, offers a sliver of Ratatat-meets-Vangelis electro-pop; but Casablancas’ true new sound was unveiled to the public at a brief eight-song, 40-minute show at the 700-capacity Duo Music Exchange in Tokyo Monday night.
Perhaps Jules was drained from playing a star-studded private party for fashion brand Opening Ceremony two days earlier, but Monday’s gig wasn’t exactly an explosive beginning to his solo performing career. Clad in the leather jacket that has become his second skin, Casablancas looked almost bored, singing at times with his back to the audience and hardly moving (though he did throw a few Japanese words into his occasional banter).
But while it drowned out his barely audible vocals much of the time, the six-piece backing band which included Strokes “guru” JP Bowersock on guitar, film-score composer Jeff Kite on keyboard, and percussionist/guitarist Danielle Haim — brought the songs alive with a rich, deep sound.
Most of the new material was light on songwriting but heavy on atmosphere. Opener “Out Of The Blue” combined gritty Johnny Cash country with psychedelic keyboard work to formless effect. Ringing synths ushered in the lavish “Glass,” whose electrified classical-style guitar solo ushered Casablancas’ droning vocals into a small crescendo. “Tourist” proffered a mournful grind so heavy it threatened to drag the audience through the floorboards.
There were a few uptempo tracks. “Left & Right” was the Strokesiest song of the set, with second guitarist Blake Mills banging a choppy rhythm from his Strat as Casablancas cried, “Oh my God, wake up!” “11th Dimension” recalled The Go! Team with its nostalgic sound and slightly cheesy keyboard work. And “River Of Brake Lights” — described on the setlist as “Crazy!” — threw in charged alt-rock guitar lines as keyboardist Nelson Freeman crashed the hell out of a cymbal stationed by his instrument.
The night’s best tunes were the dark-and-down home “Ludlow St,” whose lazy triplet rhythm complemented a booze-soaked Hank Williams-y vocal and, oddly enough, lyrics about getting sober; and “X-Marks,” a slow, electronically-enhanced ballad.
On the latter, Casablancas followed the romantic nugget, “I give you diamonds and I give you space” with the less amorous “I give you problems,” singing in a cracked, emotional voice reminiscent of, of all people, James Taylor. It was only then that the band seemed to catch fire for the first time, and this wasn’t lost on Casablancas: As the song — and with it, the set — ended, his aloof expression finally gave way to a lingering Cheshire Cat grin.
Out Of The Blue
Left & Right
River Of Brake Lights
Watch: Julian Casablancas performing in Tokyo, Japan on August 29, 2009.