rap battle: julian casablancas vs. bradford cox
  • WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 04, 2009

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The Rap Battle is a comparison of two artists with recent releases, one part record review, one part artist profile, one part weird paradoxical nonsense rambling.

Julian Casablancas and Bradford Cox... What can I say? These two are totally spy vs. spy material. Casablancas, the pretty boy from the family of immigrants models and living in the yuppie infested cool kid section of Manhattan? You know he is going to hell in a leather jacket (lyric joke!), but at least he'll be in another world. Bradford Cox is an entirely different kind of beast. His personal life is one of strange speculation and uncomfortable social skills/sexuality. He looks weird, and it is because he has a real disease that makes you look weird. But Lincoln had that same disease. So when Phrazes for The Young (the solo project from Julian C.) and Logos (the latest from Atlast Sound) came around almost simultaneously, I had to put them in conversation. They said some weird things to me! Let's review.

Julian Casablancas isn't a renaissance man (as many may claim after he jumped the pond from garage rock to electronica), he just knows how to write a pop song. So what can we call him?I want to say it, but "Great American songwriter" seems ill-conceived. The phrase has completely lost it's meaning over the past few decades, partially due to the original connotations of the words; the Bob Dylans and Paul Simons obscuring later generations. Would anyone think to call Casablancas a great American songwriter? By straight definition, he is an American, but for some reason the moniker doesn't fit. A leather jacket wearing member of the original early millennium brat pack of the Lower East Side of Manhattan couldn't possibly stand in such company, could he?

I don't like favoritism, specifically that of critics who command a large, influential portion of music fans. That is why in the past, I've tended to dislike when other great American songwriting nominee Bradford Cox comes up in the news. Despite his varied accomplishments (and he is quite accomplished), he is a blog darling, and a very, very strange person when you meet him for the first time (and sometimes after). My photographer friend had a particularly annoying time trying to shoot him (with a camera) two years ago, citing his "twelve-year old" demeanor as a difficulty. So there you go. Full disclosure.

But I was wrong. I actually really like Cox and Deerhunter (it is hard not to like a prolific, talented band), and I'll admit Atlas Sound is very interesting as well. Sonically, Cox obviously spends a lot of time observing and reacting to things in the process of songwriting. What sets Atlas Sound apart is it's emphasis on the weird, erratic noises possible with studio abuse of tape loops, hiss and manipulation of drum sounds. Cox benefits from his friends in high places; Noah Lennox lends a hand on one of the albums best cuts "Walkabout," which strikes a nice balance of the catchy and the wacky. It deviates from the particular aesthetic of Deerhunter. And it is a great song, worthy of nods from modern artists as both collaborative and progressive.

Like Deerhunter, The Strokes are the epitome of a specific aesthetic; the drunk, carousing, brash twenty-something New Yorkers. All of them have tried to extend this towards a solo effort, but I'd argue only Casablancas made his solo project his own. Casablancas, along with Albert Hammond Jr., penned one of the best and most iconic albums of the past ten years (and followed it with a dud). Those are big boots to be wearing all the time. And while Hammond seemed to fly his solo career with the same plane (to mixed results), Casablancas has switched the means to a different vehicle, albeit with the same thing traveling inside. The Strokes front man has wisely brought his infamous voice and knack for catchy, clever melodicism to the forefront of an electric escapade, a glitzy circus of sing-along electronics, and thus, he preserves the best angles of The Strokes while exploring new, interesting, and downright enjoyable sounds. The perfect solo/side project is deviation while retaining the core elements of recognition for songwriters; voice and progressions.

These qualities are hinted at in tracks like "11th Demension," where even though the hook is distinctly Stokes-ish, you know it is a Casablancas song. The retro 808 sounds, the organ riff, it sounds like a filter that has been applied to the familiar sound of our beloved boy-band. However, "11th Dimension" and "River Of Brakelights" could easily be mistaken for futuristic Strokes songs. The real differentiation occurs in constructions like "Glass," where Casablancas dissects the part writing that made his band famous, and rearranges it in beautiful, melting synth. This is a feat none of the other Strokes could accomplish; Casablancas is well known for writing guitar parts on keyboards first when penning Strokes songs. Thus he isolates his most well known nuance, and blows it up for the listener to experience.

Logos also spends a lot of time really hammering home all these ridiculous nuances, and I can see why Cox needs to try them without his Deerhunter crew. A five piece band would never allow an idea stream so pure to be incorruptible against their input. The result is kind of a pure glance into the madness that dwells in Cox's head, but it isn't ugly or petulant.. it is actually kind of beautiful. Bradford is the quintessential tragic figure that all fans of 20th century literature inevitably grow to love. And Casablancas is the rock star of the celebrity overload generation. Can you imagine the two of them in a room together?

This juxtaposition struck me as I was writing. And I don't think it was an accident that these two records wound up landing so close to each other in my head. Casablancas is the perfect foil for Cox; the pretty-boy NYC rock star who writes hits, a neatly packaged star. Cox is an Atlanta kid, a tall, awkward goof who actually suffers from a legitimate lanky-disease (Marfan's Syndrome, look it up). Casablancas fancies himself a king (we can guess); his album cover is him sitting on the recording studio throne of the future; as if he can take eight years off and still retain his crown. He is cocky where Cox is timid. The cover art says it all; he'll white out his face, but you can still see the hole in his chest. He is naked, exposed to the listener. And listening to Logos is kind of like seeing a naked, awkward Bradford Cox and accepting it as a thing of beauty. I'm basically saying it is a really weird feeling. Kind of like anticipating another Strokes album after First Impressions Of Earth.

I don't know what happened (title pun!). Some of the orchestration on Phrazes is downright weird and delightful. This brings the discussion back to the uninhibited mind of someone who could be considered a composer more than a "guy-in-a-band." By that I mean that Bradford Cox and Julian Casablancas (surprisingly) both have a tight stranglehold on arranging music, and both use their abilities in unsuspecting ways. Neither record is perfect, but at least they both take risks. They are kind of the same in that respect? Please don't hurt me.

Obviously Strokes fans and Deerhunter fans would (most likely through fisticuffs) disagree that these two records should be touching on the shelf, but I think I'm putting up a far more interesting case for listening to them together. They each represent a half of great American songwriting as it exists today; one side is "pop"-ular, polished melodicism, and the other is weird, sticky noises with artsy schmaltz. Of course, I don't think Bradford Cox has the comfort level in the fabric of the American cultural collective conciousness to guest vocal on a popular comedy album (e.g. The Lonely Island's "Boombox" featuring Casablancas). But, I also don't think Cox would be dumb enough to co-write an awful song for a terribly misguided branding effort (e.g. "My Drive Thru"). Win some, lose some.

If they actually had a "rap battle?" I tried to get both of them on the phone for comments about each other (full disclosure: I did not do that). Instead fellow Baebler David Pitz invented the comments for me (and they are perfect):

Bradford Cox: I don't really like him, but I appreciate his work and I like his music. Is This It? was a good record. Yeah.
Julian Casablancas: Who?


Phrazes For The Young and Logos are both out now. -joe puglisi

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