You can’t really argue that Julian Casablancas is a front man that inspires a lot of confidence. When The Strokes first came to attention in the early aughts, he was the figurehead of the young, unpredictable, I-probably-don’t-care generation. He was the beyond cool embodiment of the rock star.
With that attitude came the sense that you never really knew if he was okay with the idolization.
The Strokes were a rock band that broke open the doors for the guitar revival – but they were also a band that seemingly imploded from the pressure to continue being relevant. It seemed a struggle to get them to commit to anything, mostly because they didn’t want to be a let down. If they were let downs, at least their non-commitments gave them an easy out on the whole thing.
Even Strokes fans have a hard time digesting where the band has gone in more recent incarnations – later albums inevitably coming with a bunch of hype that soon dies off once the record is actually, you know, listened to.
Side projects haven’t faired much better. While Casablancas’ first solo record (2009’s Phrazes for the Young) at least packed in some pop hooks to hang on to, his work with The Voidz sees Casablancas moving further and further away from any grand-scale likeability. Stopping at Toronto’s Kool Haus on Friday November 21, in support of 2014’s Tyranny, he proved he still has supporters (see: people in the front row who had been in line since 7:00 am in the freezing cold) – it just might not be sustainable. At least not at this rate.
Five-piece backing band The Voidz is big on long, languid guitar riffs that invariably match Casablancas off-kilter persona. But between guitar solos and vocal distortions, it was hard to distinguish the sloppy from the auteurism.
In highlighting the work of The Voidz and Tyranny, earlier work thrown on the setlist (such as Phrazes for the Young’s “River of Brakelights”) seemed like pre-chewed bones tossed to the fans without much heart.
And that’s the problem with all of this. Casablancas is so blinded by The Voidz and the unapproachable material that he can’t seem to distinguish the good from the bad. He’s also so conscious of his persona that he holds back on seeming like he’s enjoying himself. It’s all rather conflicting.
He can tour with The Voidz for as long as he likes (and drummer Alex Carapetis deserves a huge congratulations for carrying much of the set) – but let’s be clear: no one is there for that band. People are there for Julian, for his larger-than-life persona, and for his once-achieved excellence.
People are also there on the off-chance he might slip in a couple of Strokes cover songs, such as “Ize of the World” and “I’ll Try Anything Once” – the latter playing particularly well thanks to the crowd’s reception. Frankly, seeing Casablancas respond to the audience’s enthusiasm on that number was a nice touch and something I wished for more of. In order for that to happen though, he’s going to need to start writing better songs.
Thankfully, the set ended on a positive note with “Dare I Care” and its jungle beats. But with a song title like that, I was obviously going to leave the venue asking myself the same question. At this point, Casablancas has put on display such an exorbitant amount of apathy – and built a career of it – that caring by or for him seems hardly worth the effort. Then, for that brief fleeting glimpse, you get the sense he does enjoy it… and it somehow validates all the other bullshit he’s putting us through. Talk about Helsinki syndrome.
So how long can a legacy possibly last when there seems to be little intention or purpose to support it? For now, it depends on how long Casablancas and his fans can ride that wave of nostalgia. All I know is: that Kool Haus set was nowhere near where it needed to be.