Is This It?
Remember when you first heard about the Strokes? It just seemed so ridiculous. Remember? Sure you do!
Over-hyped, good-looking posers whose parents were ’tainment-biz big shots who you just know got them a record deal for Christmas. And so smug and East Coast-y! They met in boarding school, for chrissake, paddling the underclassmen, one imagines. And the singer’s name is Julian Casablancas — Julian Casablancas for the love of Pete — and there’s a guy named Fab, and he’s not from Milli Vanilli, and they’re wearing little brown leather jackets with the odd scarf and thrift-store shirts purchased no doubt for $45 from a girl named Tree at some vintage boutique that smells faintly of incense and Jolly Ranchers. And they act so bored, and you’re told that they’re coming to save rock & roll. Yeah.
And when you finally listen to Is This It, you’re all set to pronounce it empty hype, and even as the words are on your very lips, you decide that actually it’s not that bad. You decide it’s okay. They got a thing. You decide — you decide — you’re going to like it. And when you argue about them at parties, you defend them. You defend them and their record, and most of all, you defend their importance. Their importance in helping to vanquish rap-rock baloney and Woodstock ’99-ery, opening the door for real bands with real rock cool. And you do like their record, you do, but now you can’t remember the last time you put it on, or come to think of it, actually where it is.
Their second record came and went, whatever it was called: You didn’t buy that one. You heard about half of it at your friend’s house and that was enough, but you’re still glad the Strokes exist. Still happy for their importance. And the years pass happily enough, and you move three or four times and drink a lot.
When you hear about First Impressions of Earth (RCA), the new one, you’re actually kinda curious. Third albums can be defining! You’ve heard their single, “Juicebox,” on the radio, and even though it’s not that great, it’s all right, probably, if you listen to it enough times. It’s got that Spy Hunter bass line and it’s upbeat and it’s got a lot of parts and he’s screaming in the chorus or the post-chorus or . . . does it have a chorus? Anyway, he’s screaming, “You’re so cold! You’re so cold!” and you wonder if he’s singing to an actual box of juice he left in the freezer too long, or if the title is just some unknowable pun on “jukebox.” Either way, mysterious stuff.
You borrow the album from a friend (he offers to loan it to you . . . hmm) and open the booklet and notice it’s produced by David Kahne, famed for his ProTools work with Sugar Ray. You think, very interesting, possibly. This could prove to be a bold new step for the Strokes, dropping their NYC-bored-cool front and making a great record, or at the very least an ill-fated sellout attempt, which might be fun, too. But it’s neither of those things. Okay, it’s a little different: The drums sound like a different cheap drum machine than usual, and Julian Casablancas (Julian Casablancas! Still!) has laid off on that telephone effect, and you actually like that, and for some reason he’s singing like Bono, and you like that too. But he’s still so bored and so bored of telling us that he’s bored and that he’d like to care but doesn’t, that it’s not much of a change.
You decide you like it. Especially the first half. You tend to drift off toward the end of the record every time, despite real effort. But no matter! The band cooks those eighth notes up like the ching-ching-ching-ching machine they are, and the arrangements and production are often interesting, sometimes surprising. There’s plenty of Strokes-style guitar note choices — in that Television way — and it’s got some pretty hooky numbers, like opener “You Only Live Once” and the Beatles-y “Ask Me Anything.” That one’s a highlight, with this mellotronic-cello thing and Lou Reedian vox, singing the can’t-be-bothered chorus, “I’ve got nothing to say” over and over.
The most hummable melodies, however, are “Razorblade” and “On the Other Side.” Respectively, these two melodies are usually recognized as “Mandy” by Barry Manilow and “Camptown Races.” And you decide that’s all right, even fun. So cheeky! There’s that “You Belong to the City” reference in “Electricityscape”! That Julian can be such an enigmatic little shit! :)
Later, you go to the Souplantation for dinner with your mom and your pregnant sister. In the bathroom, they’re playing Manilow’s “Mandy,” and it’s damn good — nearly heartbreaking — though you’re generally not much of a Manilow fan. During your meal of gelatinous goo, you get to thinking: What are the odds, 30-something years from now, they’ll be playing the Strokes in the bathroom of a Souplantation or KooKooRoo or any restaurant? Is there anything about this band that is genuine and real and rock and bitchin’ enough to even halfway compete with the longetivity of a cornball like Barry Manilow?
It’s not that referencing other bands, shoplifting lyrics or even committing grand-theft song is a crime in itself. Manilow reworked “Mandy” from a minor hit called “Brandy” by Scott English, for the love of the Dutch, and bands like Green Day and early Oasis can make plagiarism a creative exploration in rock desire and an expression of, yes, love of music. But with the Strokes, it plays smug and superior, the kind of superiority that comes from a low sense of self-worth and a fear of being exposed. When JC cops to stealing songs in “Electricityscape,” he acts like it’s a compliment, but it sounds like sour grapes.
So you keep thinking, and you start to be amazed by how low your — and everybody’s — expectations, requirements, demands are for an album by a band who are supposed to be one of the key forces of the day. We expect almost nothing, and they deliver. Their new album is not very good, though not that bad either, in that Strokes way. You stop for a second and remember, the main thing about the Strokes wasn’t how great they were, but that you were glad they existed, and happy for their importance.
Limited or not, they were still the thing that killed Limp Bizkit, and helped usher in our new modern era of real rock & roll that we all love, yeah? Except the more you think about it, you wonder just how much of the post-Strokes era is a phony improvement. Just because everything right before it extra-sucked doesn’t mean that this is good.
You wanted to believe it, wanted this to be a good thing. You did your part. You bought that Vines record, didn’t you? That one that was $6.99 new, but only had that one good song, and now you forgot how it goes. You kinda forgot the Vines even existed until I just reminded you, huh? Kinda forgot the Strokes existed, too, until you heard they had a new album coming out, huh? Still glad they exist, though. Their record’s all right. Wanna borrow it?
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