Record Reviews 

Strokes used to sound great; now more filling.

Four years after the avalanche of media hype that greeted it and the hipster-backlash tsunami that followed, you might think the Strokes' debut Is This It would sound pretty underwhelming. But it still sounds great to me.

The secret of the band's success was that they were gauche enough to convert hipper-than-thou influences into blissfully bashed-out party music. They were good for the same reason the backlash was so immense: They were a pop band, not an art band.

But for a band thought prefabricated, they sure had command of their sound: a dual-guitar attack of sugary, interlocking rhythm parts that occasionally burst into explosive solos; songs nailed in place by big Motown-style bass lines; a locomotive undercurrent that pushed even the rare "ballad" to a frenzied pace. Were the songs Julian Casablancas warbled over the top of this sure-fire formula shallow? Yep. But the band imbued twentysomething date culture with a romantic allure less gag-worthy the further removed you were from it.

After all the hoopla and kvetching, people were primed to dislike the follow-up, Room on Fire, but the artistic drop-off was as slight as it was perceptible. Album three, First Impressions of Earth, is where the real drop-off happens. Each of those first two albums came in at 11 songs and about 35 minutes and bopped along at a relentless, agitated pace. The artier First Impressions swells to 14 songs and a comparatively behemoth 52 minutes, and the result is a record that's slower, heavier, and more labored.

The lead single, "Juicebox," is one of the "labored over" songs: It would have been the least catchy track on Is This It and close to it on Room on Fire. In trying to carve a new niche, this bid for career credibility careens in several directions where previous records danced in a circle. "Heart in a Cage" sounds like Lust for Life-era Iggy Pop. The techno-pop "Ask Me Anything" evokes Magnetic Fields. And I swear I hear Barry Manilow ("Mandy") on the chorus of "Razorblade."

There are moments that recall the beery, buzzy beauty of past hits and I certainly wouldn't put it past the Strokes to rebound with another fine record. But this band used to shimmy; now they just sound shook. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: B

12 Songs

Neil Diamond

(Columbia)

Rick Rubin gives Neil Diamond the Johnny Cash treatment on 12 Songs: a late-career comeback full of stripped-down songs about late-career life. Minimal arrangements fit the Man in Black to a tee, but these dozen songs beg for punchier production, faster tempos, horns, and back-up singers. Speed up "Oh Mary" and "Save Me a Saturday Night" and you've got lively crowd movers like "Cherry Cherry" or "You Got to Me." Stark intimacy has never been Diamond's strong suit, and why should it be when he can talk to a thousand people at once instead of crooning to just one? ("Captain of a Shipwreck," "Delirious Love") -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B-

Confessions on a Dance Floor

Madonna(Warner Bros.)

Madonna's last album, American Life, was a particularly ignorant bit of bait and switch: Done up as Che Guevara on the cover, Madonna's idea of political songs was how super it is to drive around in a Mini Cooper. Ugh, no thanks. Confessions gets Madonna back to the disco, where she's always excelled at stealing the best ideas from the gay subculture. DJ Stuart Price (Jacques Lu Cont) makes sure everything throbs with day-glow intensity, and Madonna keeps the icky personal info to a minimum (though some of the second half of the album, especially the woe-is-fame "How High," stumbles). "Hung Up" is top-shelf escapism, and there are others so surpassingly sweet that you wouldn't care if Madonna sang about trading in her Mini for a Hummer. ("Hung Up," "Jump," "Forbidden Love") -- Werner Trieschmann

Grade: B+

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