Live Review: Julian Casablancas

His official solo debut it may be, but Julian isn’t firing on all cylinders. Shibuya Duo Music Exchange, Tokyo, Monday, August 31

It’s beyond us why Julian Casablancas would waste a golden opportunity like this: when someone asks you, Jules, where you want to make your official solo performance debut, you say ‘Casablanca’. Not bleeding Tokyo. Of all the venues, in all the towns, in all the world, why here? No offence to the world’s most futuristic city or anything: perhaps he saw it as a chance to test material from ‘Phrazes For The Young’ in front of a loyal and forgiving audience, some 7,000 miles from home?

Is it because the man just seriously can’t get enough sushi? Or is the real purpose of his trip the star-studded private party he played for fat-walleted fashion brand Opening Ceremony two days earlier? Hmmm…

Whatever the motivation, the young audience tonight have forked out 6,000 yen (£40) with nothing more to go on than the short video preview on Jules’ website of Ratatat-style, electro-tinged, prog-poppy sounds. Rather than offering a new machine-tooled dance vision, though, the songs unveiled tonight are born from timeless country, blues and AOR – albeit with some very strange sonic architecture on top.

Opener ‘Out Of The Blue’ combines a repetitive country groove in the vein of Johnny Cash with a psychedelic keyboard embellishment. While it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere, perhaps it isn’t supposed to: the songs from ‘Phrazes…’ mostly seem to accentuate atmosphere over structure: as such, tight pop tunes are more or less out of the window.

In the dark confines of Duo Music Exchange – a small venue co-owned by Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, nestled among the ‘romantic’ surrounds of the Shibuya district’s Love Hotel Hill (where you and your beloved can rent a room for a couple of hours to ‘rest’) Julian seems barely present. His voice is almost inaudible, his back often turned to the audience, and it’s his bandmates who really steal the show, guitarist Blake Mills cracking out freak-out solos while The Strokes’ ‘guru’ JP Bowersock focuses on atmospherics and Zappa hair. Thickening the rich mix of sounds, keyboardists Jeff Kite and Nelson Freeman handle basslines and dreamy synths while Danielle Haim adds texture with percussion, digital devices and her SG guitar; and Alex Carapetis, one-time session drummer with Nine Inch Nails and, er, Robbie Williams, offers lightweight but tight rhythms.

Thankfully, tonight’s crowd are more than prepared to listen: even if Julian had come out naked and riding a triple-breasted unicorn, Tokyo audiences are hard to whip up. Some fans shout out questions to Julian between songs or just wave for his attention (most were ignored, though he does announce that, “I fucking love the shit out of you guys”), but, mostly, the vibe is of rapt attention to the new sounds unfolding.

‘Glass’, the song from the progtastic video trailer, begins with ringing synth harmonics that ease the audience into its warm electronic depths. Blake’s electrified classical guitar solo draws gasps from the crowd, while Julian’s voice reaches a small climax that was nonetheless hushed, like a pulled punch. ‘Left & Right’ and ‘River Of Brake Lights’, meanwhile, lifts the mood a little. The former has a Strokesy flavour, with a choppy, clean guitar line, an urgent chorus of “Oh my god, wake up!” and a face-slappingly abrupt ending. The latter gambols like a frisky alt.rock puppy as Nelson whacks a cymbal and Danielle and Jeff bring the guitar count up to four.

But it’s when Julian fully embraces soulful country that he shines brightest. A Hank Williams-style melody on the boozy, blue ‘Ludlow St’ fits his voice like a dusty glove, while set-closer ‘X-Marks’ sees him finally let go, channelling ’70s AOR crooner James Taylor as he pours emotion into the song’s cavernous spaces with lines such as “I hear it in your silence/When you don’t speak”, subtle electronics and a histrionic guitar solo from JP crackling over the top. Finally cracking out a massive grin, Julian high-fives the crowd and walks offstage, his ‘Phrazes…’ so far having won round these young at least. Play it again, Jules…

Daniel Robson