The unbounded freedom of a debut album can certainly be overwhelming for a songwriter. An emerging band can go in any direction, and the first album lays the groundwork for their music going forward. Luckily for Nick Valensi, he had a strong foundation to fall back on when he set out to make New Skin with the other members of CRX: a decade of experience with one of the most well-known rock bands of the 21st century. It’s not surprising, then, that the strongest feature of New Skin is Valensi’s masterful guitar playing — the songs drip with familiar dual guitar arrangements that will bring Strokes fans straight back to Angles. The parallels between CRX and Valensi’s other outfit, however, stop there. Stepping up for the first time as both lyricist and lead singer, he introduces the listener to CRX’s unique — albeit confusing — cocktail of power pop and hard rock.
At its best, CRX vacillate between high-energy electropop and mellow alt rock. “Anything” is quintessential West Coast, right down to the subtle chorus of “oohs” that underscore the peppy guitar breakdown. On “Unnatural” the band gets grittier without compromising a jumpy chorus and complementary guitar riffs. At its worst, on the other hand, CRX’s songs devolve into an identity crisis, unable to reconcile saccharine vocals and heavy, distorted guitars in any meaningful way. “Give It Up” can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to say, and ends up sounding slightly like a more musically sophisticated Fall Out Boy. On these tracks, it’s as if CRX are unwilling to sacrifice a good rhyme for a stronger lyric. That might be fine for an upbeat dance song, but it feels uncomfortable in a heavy rock context.
This isn’t to say that the lack of cohesion on New Skin is inherently a problem. Indeed, some of the most interesting tracks seem wholly disconnected from the rest of the album. “On Edge” is a fiery sub-two-minute jam that flirts with punk enough to make for a sizable mosh pit. On the other end, “Ways to Fake It”, the most decidedly pop song on New Skin, is a neat and fluid tribute to Elvis Costello and The Cars, underpinned by a rolling guitar melody that is pure Valensi.
It’s fitting, then, that an album with such an eclectic combination of elements would take up issues of authenticity as its lyrical project. “Who knows what’s true with all these points of view?” Valensi asks on closing track “Monkey Machine”. It’s a fair question for a musician, and perhaps CRX wasn’t designed with an objective truth or style in mind. Right now, at least, they seem far more interested in just playing. Even on a lyrical level, though, the music comes into conflict with itself. “Ways to Fake It” talks about faking happiness for the sake of others, while “Walls” ridicules others for doing the same (“I don’t know what to make of it/ When everyone is faking it”).
If one thing’s for sure, New Skin promises to make for a fun live show. Valensi admits that CRX began as a “vehicle to get me back on tour,” and treating the album exclusively as a tool to that end makes it a success. But if the band wants to pursue its sound further in the studio, they should focus on reconciling the tonal mismatch that underlies much of their music. CRX might pride themselves on not focusing excessively on cohesion, but on the level of the individual song, a lack of unity can undermine otherwise powerful elements. With New Skin, CRX have defined the parameters of who they are as a band. Going forward, they will need to find harmony in the tensions between them.
Essential Tracks: “Anything”, “Unnatural”, and “Ways to Fake It”