For the week of 5/14/2012…

“15 Minutes” by The Strokes

First Impressions of Earth, the Strokes’ third album, in some ways is an anomaly in their catalog.  For one thing, it’s twice as long as each of their other albums in terms of run-time, and it’s the only album they’ve released with a full 14 tracks.  But more importantly, it’s the only one of the Strokes’ four albums to be widely panned by music critics.  I, for one, must sharply dissent.  Maybe “Juicebox” wasn’t the best choice for a first single, but damnit, I just don’t understand how there can be so much negativity towards a record with some of the Strokes’ all-time best songs (“Heart in a Cage,” “Vision of Division,” “You Only Live Once”) and a slew of lesser-known gems (“Red Light,” “Electricityscape,” “Fear of Sleep,” and my current song of the week, “15 Minutes”).  It’s not a perfect album by any means, but it’s a monument to the Strokes’ musical creativity and ability.  I get the sense that this album was, by and large, too weird, too experimental, or too different for a lot of fans of Is This It, the band’s blockbuster first album.  Look, I think that Is This It is a great album, but I’m perfectly happy to watch the Strokes expand on and stray from that formula.  In the grand scheme of things, First Impressions of Earth is not really all that experimental or weird.  It’s certainly different from the Strokes’ earlier work, but I personally think that their efforts here resulted in a pretty terrific set of songs, even if a few of the experiments didn’t work out.

Of all the songs on this album, “15 Minutes” is perhaps the weirdest or most experimental of the bunch.  One critic called it “a shambling mess of a ballad that eventually ignites into a rocker, [which] is so odd that it ends up being more surprising than disappointing.”  I don’t think I would be disappointed even if I weren’t surprised by it; besides, like the rest of the album, it gets better with repeated listens.  The “shambling mess of a ballad” part which opens the song brings an exciting revelation:  Julian Casablancas, having ditched the singing-through-a-payphone effect found in his band’s first two albums, stumbles drunkenly into the first verse sounding exactly like Shane McGowan, the singer from the Pogues.  Hilarious.  The lyrics of the song are often opaque and sometimes weird, including one of the stranger couplets to be found in Casablancas’ canon (“I saw worlds, they don’t stop, they’re like us/they go fast, like a sun, that’s been shot”) and an outro which is kind of like a rewrite of the Twelve Days of Christmas, except in reverse order, about music composition instead of Christmas presents, and set to an entirely different tune.

What really makes this track interesting to me is the instrumentation.  It seems like there’s a lot more variety in what the guitars and drums are doing here, compared to poppier, fundamentally simpler songs from earlier Strokes albums.  The “shambling mess of a ballad” part of the song finds Nick Valensi in a series of shimmering loops of guitar.  At 2:10, the song “ignites into a rocker” and the melody from the “it was all a dream…” part of the ballad is re-purposed as a somewhat punchy indie-punk chorus (which brings us the weird couplet mentioned above).  Then, at about 2:39, as Casablancas begins to sing “everybody at the party,” a plunky, Tripping Daisy-esque guitar lick replaces the driving guitar for a bit — maybe my favorite part of the song.  And why don’t we let the drummer have some?  Fab Moretti is a good drummer, but rarely an inventive one.  But in this song, far from being mechanical, he’s doing all kinds of different stuff at different points in the song; it’s a rare example of a Strokes song worth another listen-through just to pay attention what the drums are doing.

To sum up, this is one of the most obscure songs in the Strokes’ studio discography, but it’s a gem which rewards those who listen to it multiple times over.  So, go forth and listen!

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