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Julian Casablancas aims big at the Palace

November 7, 2009 |  4:30 pm

At what was a coming-out party for an 8-track solo debut, the Strokes' Julian Casablancas wasn't about to let a limited arsenal of his own songs hold him back. The Downtown Palace Theatre, with a capacity of about 2,000, is far from the festival and arena stages that have played host to the Strokes since the band's tightly wound guitar rock returned a mainstream focus to the underground community with 2001's "Is This It."

Casablancas showed that his electro-pop solo work, released this week with "Phrazes for the Young," was no mere diversion as fans await a long-discussed Strokes' fourth album, what would be the band's first since 2006's "First Impressions of Earth." Indeed, at the first of four shows this month at the venue -- Casablanacas will perform every Friday through the month of November at the Palace -- the cooly disaffected vocalist had an eight-piece band and production values that looked as if they could easily dwarf the recording budgets of any number of indie rock albums (a purely Pop & Hiss estimate).

The relatively short set was broken up with an intermission, which the band used for a costume change, slipping into some '70s-style white suits and unveiling an all-white set makeover that could have been ripped from "American Bandstand." The visuals impressed, more so because the giant sliding screens  allowed for the underground water shots, cartoon-ish cityscapes and kaleidoscope-like prisms that mirrored Casablancas' intricately weird arrangements. No wonder such a short performance carries a relatively high admission price, with tickets starting at $35.

Though the Strokes' songs are no less meticulous, drummer Fabrizio Moretti (apparently in the balcony last night) keeps the band's songs fast and sharp, cutting a direct line through the Strokes' give-and-take guitars to create a tension, almost as if the band is just about to veer off the tracks. Casablancas' solo work is all about exploring the spaces in between. The dual percussionists are mood-setters rather than song-drivers, letting the synth rhythms obscure the melodies.

"As soon as I get sober, I remember why I drank it all away," Casablancas sang on "Ludlow St." With all sorts of shiny electronic effects, Casablancas' urban tales didn't quite have the drunken bite of a Shane MacGowan, but the can't-be-bothered vocal warble is firmly in place, and an assortment of '80s snyths and country flashes collided to create an effectively trippy vibe.

Such a mood continued on a late-night waltz of "4 Chords of the Apocalypse," a slow-dance stand-out on Casablancas' debut. "It's nice to be important, but so close to being despised," Casablancas sang, flashing a bit of rock 'n' roll scratch as a rush of keyboard noises captured a lonely lounge-singer atmosphere.

Yet such reflection perked up on "11th Dimension," an odd dance-rock song. Only the percussionists broke a sweat, because there's a detached feel to the guitar parts, which paint the electronic noises with occasional riffs rather than lead them.

The instantly infectious melodies of the Strokes weren't necessarily on display -- Casablancas performed minimalist Strokes rarity "I'll Try Anything Once" -- and only "Left & Right in the Dark" (above) truly built to a grand chorus. Instead, Casablancas delighted in exploring melodies that teased by being just left-of-center.

--Todd Martens

Julian Casablancas at the Palace Theatre, 615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, Nov. 13, Nov. 20 and Nov. 27. Tickets range from $35 to $50, not including surcharges. 

Related: A solo turn from Julian Casablancas