The little girls understand that the Strokes’ brand of rock isn’t revolutionary; they know that’s entirely moot. For them — and possibly the rest of us — what is undeniable is the sense that this band has hit on something that’s rather perfect, that is, it represents something exactly of a place and time. That right place and time have been coldly predetermined for the band, goes the hoary old rock bore’s point of view, but rock history makes clear that calculated market product and high art are not mutually exclusive entities.
The Strokes shot out of the gate with their 2001 debut album, Is This It, 11 brief bolts of New York/new-wave rock & roll ’tude that simply shattered the foundations under the prevailing shopworn nu metal, hip-hop, emo-punk and sensitive folkie garbage in one sensationally smart slam. And it was a relief to hear it — a relief to know it was good enough stuff to zip up the haters who’d decried the “hype!” lavished upon the Strokes, whose good looks and impeccable cool (and potent industry connections) had hogged a bit too much attention. This buzz, while manufactured, was forced upon them, too, and it was of the semi-authoritative, heatedly insistent New York/NME variety which in short order proclaimed them THE BEST BAND ON THE PLANET! In fact, the Strokes were from the start underdogs who had to fight the assumption that they’d butted in at the front of the line, hadn’t earned their strokes.
Boys and girls, the Strokes are far from the best band on the planet, but you’re welcome to believe that they are, in which case you will, and then they are. The band’s follow-up to Is This It is called Room on Fire, which further distills the first album’s formula of short-shock songs bursting with direct impact and vague intentions. The opening tune, “What Ever Happened,” “boasts” the rather chintzy production values you came to know and love on the first disc; it’s an aesthetic that’ll prevail throughout Room on Fire, a highly particularized wall of faux-unfussy dynamics, including the tinny crack of a snare drum that actually sounds like a snare drum and not a marshmallow, and that wiry mid-tone/slightly Rickenbacker bass plucking, a lot of spider-webby guitar parts and simplex riffs and interruptions for a lot of other densely braided guitar bits; a touch of “soul” creeps in; they might nod their heads to metallical rifferini. And then singer/icon Julian Casablancas’ got a nice line in little quavers at the end of his phrases, one assumes carefully planned touches of nuance to impart the feel to his classically rock-raspy not-exactly-whine. Casablancas’ voice on the album’s numerous adequate melodies (melodies that probably shouldn’t be more florid than they are) stands out mostly for the way it doesn’t ape current emo-punk aesthetics. He doesn’t sound like a suburban teen; he does come off like a specifically New York City young man familiar with the concept of sex appeal, and it’s a voice that gives the Strokes something like real authority.
Separation of style and substance does you no good in discussing the importance of a band like the Strokes, because the sound of these songs is a critical element in their story, in cahoots with all the talk about their looks. Despite what you may have read about the hookability of the Strokes’ tunes, the songs themselves are rather interchangeable and mostly draw from the same intentionally (shrewdly) limited pool of sources — which isn’t a negative, since they’re less individual statements than semi-varied shades of a youth-wearing-blinders frame of mind: youth itself, desire, frustration, bitterness, etc. And you don’t want to get carried away trading insights into the mysteries of these songs’ messages, as Casablancas is stating nothing, but is using his voice and “rock song lyrics” to proper rock effect. Like “Reptilia,” which at 3:42 is a relative opus and ought to prove a real thrasher live-performancewise: It drives and drives so trashy and tuff — these modern Strokes would never be caught swinging their long hair back and forth in unison, and more’s the pity.
Strokes songs end abruptly, like the best art-punks used to do, like Wire; in “Automatic Stop,” Casablancas’ tightly compressed voice-via-string-through-a-tin-can is placed right in the middle of your head, which makes you begin to feel like you’re shouting at yourself. All this affect, and all this studied approach to mixing, is the result of years of rock research, theirs and producer Gordon Raphael’s, and, let’s face it, possibly a bunch of suits at RCA. Likewise, a tune like “12:51” is a “handclaps and synth” number redolent of the Cars, and in this relatively sunny tune, the banality of the instrumental refrain makes one aware of that deeply embedded and newly-fashionable-again concept called irony. (It should, anyway.) About the most experimental the Strokes get in Room on Fire is when they widen the stereo image on the drums in “Under Control”; the sound mix on the album might make you ponder the producer’s curious decision to have so heavily processed Casablancas’ voice over instrumental tracks that sound like a demo recorded in a garage. Yes, it simulates what they did in the ’60s, but say you’re 16 and don’t know about the Nuggets stuff, then you have no context for this kind of aesthetic. In other words, lacking an ironic context, a shitty production is just that, correct? I’m just asking.
Because there’s something extremely studied and self-conscious about the Strokes, you might place them poles apart from an art-rock band like, say, Radiohead; the Strokes seem the essence of a new breed of rock-art bands. If these so tightly planned and executed song forms are somewhat stiff on record, with their fetishized trebly “unproduced” teen sound, then even that seems deliberate, an artiness that makes Strokes tunes less pop songs than pop-song forms. One of the comparatively unusual tracks on the disc, “You Talk Way Too Much” (even their song titles have been clinically garage-rock tested) has facile guitar interludes/refrains that polka dot your cranium like semaphore and Casablancas shaking a tambourine in such a way as to make you suspect that their producers are just using these kids’ bodies to fulfill their own sonic fantasies. (Ironically, too, engineers in the ’60s would’ve gotten a fuller sound if they could’ve.)
The closing “I Can’t Win” is nothing but fast, post-new-wave/post-punk teenbeat nirvana. At the very least, the Strokes are never a drag. So ask yourself: How much are we imposing on these guys? Why have they been chosen? Do we only want to build them up just to shoot ’em back down? Probably, but don’t do it. While there’s nothing the Strokes attempt that doesn’t strike a familiar chord, the real creative meltdown just might be on the way, the inevitable kind of stylistic reaching that separates the rock gods from the rock also-rans. Let’s hope the Strokes bear that in mind when they take on record No. 3.
THE STROKES | Room on Fire | (RCA)