Sound Advice

Posted Nov. 26, 2009, at 9:08 p.m.

Julian Casablancas

“Phrazes for the Young”

(RCA)

The solo album is a time-honored rock tradition, an outlet for when the other guys in your band just won’t let you put that song that really showcases your hidden reggae influences or your love of Bach sonatas on their next record.

Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas makes his solo debut with “Phrazes for the Young,” an up-and-down nine-song collection, which includes a few bouncy, infectious songs that equal the best work of his main band, a few successful experiments that move into very non-Strokes-like territory and a couple overcooked tracks that seem to indicate too much time spent in the studio slathering on more overdubs than necessary.

The undoubted highlight is the lead single “11th Dimension,” which sounds like a great lost Strokes song pumped up with monster 1980s-style keyboards and is easily more exciting than anything on Casablancas and company’s last album, 2006’s uneven “First Impressions of Earth.”

Casablancas also hits pay-dirt with “Left & Right in the Dark,” another track that combines his knack for catchy guitar hooks with more electronic elements, and the storming “River of Brakelights,” the most compelling track on the album. A clattering drum machine beat gradually builds into a chorus that feels genuinely urgent and dangerous, even though Casablancas, on closer lyrical inspection, is singing lines such as “In the afterlife of super cities, rapidly devouring its outskirts, its neon octopus arms redecorating late at night.” Hmmm. Fortunately, Casablancas’s trademark drawled delivery turns many of his lyrics into pure sound, the words mercifully rendered unintelligible.

Unfortunately, he falls victim to the typical solo album urge to overindulge sometimes. “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” probably didn’t need those big, annoying organ rolls in the chorus, and it remains unclear if the world is ready for “Ludlow St.,” an alternative country song about yuppies taking over Manhattan that also features a sputtering drum machine and horns.

Still, it’s hard to fault Casablancas for wanting to stray a bit from the sound he pretty much perfected with the Strokes, and his departures prove fruitful more often than not on “Phrazes for the Young.” We can hope that he brings that yen for experimenting back to his band for their long-awaited fourth album.

— TRAVIS GASS

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Gossip

“Music for Men”

(Columbia)

Gossip have long been loved in Europe, gaining wide critical acclaim for 2001’s “That’s Not What I Heard,” and 2003’s “Movement.” But it was 2006 that saw Gossip become almost household names in the U.K. with the No. 1 album “Standing in the Way of Control,” which earned the band a gold record and singer Beth Ditto an award from Britain’s New Musical Express as 2006’s “Coolest Person in Rock.”

“Music for Men” is a long way from the scything garage punk of “That’s Not What I Heard” or the sludgy proto-blues attack of ‘Movement.” Instead it is the logical progression of the shuffle toward the dance floor that marked out “Standing in the Way of Control.”

That they’re going to try to drag you there with them is announced instantly by the hip-twitching swagger of opener “Dimestore Diamond,” and the album’s first single “Heavy Cross,” which cribs from Franz Ferdinand’s fretwork, nicks some Pink Floyd pings and lets Ditto implore around an elastic bass line — “We can play it safe or play it cool. … the choice is yours.”

I’d prefer they played it cool, and that may be some of the problem here on their major-label debut. For the first time it feels like Gossip have their eyes on the charts, and the dangerous feel of their earlier work is missing.

Yes this is a party, pure and simple. And unfortunately even the best parties can become wearying, and this one is no exception. Light on variety, and likely not aided by Rick Rubin’s “up to 11” production, “Music for Men” begins to lose your attention by the half-way mark and finally even the nod to Lora Logic’s sax squeals on “Spare Me From the Mold” is not enough to keep me from getting my coat.

— ADAM CORRIGAN

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Barbra Streisand

“Love is the Answer”

(Columbia)

Melancholy.

As I first listened to Barbra Streisand’s latest album, this word came to mind with each song.

But not at all in a sad way.

No, it’s the melancholy that comes from living and loving and letting go — and realizing you would do it all over again, pain and disappointment included.

While later reading the liner notes from Diana Krall, the jazz singer-songwriter who plays piano on many of the tracks, I found she used the same word, then went on to describe Streisand’s legendary voice as “nuance which exults and laments in equal measure.”

I couldn’t say it better.

“Love is the Answer” is perfection, a personal conversation with Barbra who holds nothing back and smoothly soars the scale with a controlled power no other singer of today can equal.

The 13 song choices and their flawless orchestration are inspired. From the opener, “Here’s to Life,” with its telling first line, “No complaints and no regrets,” to the Krall-suggested finale of “You Must Believe in Spring” and its closing line, “You must believe in spring and love,” the album comes full circle.

Each song is a different memory along the way and none disappoints. Streisand’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” rivals the definitive version from Frank Sinatra, while her version of “If You Go Away” is enough to rip your heart out of your chest. “Make Someone Happy,” whose lyrics provide the album title, is endearing, as is “Where Do You Start?” with its timeless images.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” I can say that I never heard the words — really heard the words — until I listened to Streisand sing them.

Bittersweet.

Beautiful.

Barbra.

— JANINE PINEO

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