October 30, 2003

The Strokes: Stroking the Fire

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The threat of the sophomore slump loomed large over the New York retro-rock outfit, The Strokes. With their first release, Is this It?, receiving unsurpassed levels of hype followed by overwhelming acclaim, listeners and critics alike turned their eyes to the follow-up. Some hoped for an album that would defy all doubts about the band’s artistic prowess, others hoped for an album that would allow The Strokes to be written off as rock impostors. The question in the minds of both parties: how could The Strokes reach the bar set by their debut? The answer: by making an album nearly identical to their first in all of its glorious rock revisionism.

Anticipating the scrutiny, The Strokes took to their studio for about six months, even scraping their brief effort with famed Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich and returning to the trusted hands of Gordon Raphael. Out emerged Room on Fire, a fleeting album of eleven twitchy tracks that speeds by in thirty minutes and leaves you with the same inevitable question posed by the title of their first release: is this it? Six months of recording and all we get is more catchy guitar riffs, drums, and bass? It took George Martin and The Beatles six months to create Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album so complex it couldn’t be replicated live. On the other hand, it took Brian Wilson six months to record just one track, the richly layered “Good Vibrations.” Then again, Brian Wilson went insane. In any case, six months was time well spent for The Strokes.

Room on Fire captures the stop and go immediacy of New York City. It is the ceaseless blur of red brake lights shooting across streets and down avenues through the night. It is the alienation urbanites experience searching for romance in an emotionally cold city. It is the music of five young men trying to be themselves in the face of adversity, be it the cityscape, love, or fame. This last trait may be what renders this album so appealing, for The Strokes are trying to be no one but The Strokes. They are what they are, whether their music has been co-opted from another, previous age or if it presents a new iteration of the garage aesthetic — they straddle the fine line between innovation and imitation.

Like Is This It?, The Strokes’s latest relies on warm, minimalist bass, two guitars running tightly in harmony at eight hits a measure, and in-the-pocket, near machine-like drums, all topped off by Julian Casablancas’s impassioned, distorted vocals. However, there a few subtle changes to the band’s style that go a long way. On “Reptilia,” The Strokes cut out their distinct texture for a moment, dropping the weight of the song on a single guitar that jumps from chord to chord. As pounding bass and a torrent of drums re-enter the mix, the song is brought to new heights. The next track, “Automatic Stop” plays a syncopated guitar line against another guitar strumming on every beat. When the dual guitars jive with the unshakable drum backbeat, the song will send you twitching yourself. Other notable tracks include the disco beat number “Between Love and Hate,” the slower-paced dreamy-pop of “Under Control,” and the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” inspired riff of “The End Has No End.”

In addition to stronger musical composition, Casablancas adds greater lyrical depth this time around, freer to wax poetic about his hang-ups. For example, on “Meet Me In The Bathroom,” Julian tells the story of a friendship conflicted by unrequited love, further troubled when emotion overtakes the pair in a bathroom: “Yeah, we were just two friends in lust/ And baby, that just don’t mean much/ You trained me not to love/ After you showed me what it was.” The success of their first album finds Julian no less dissatisfied or troubled, as evident on the opening track, “What Ever Happened?,” on which he comments on his stardom and criticizes mass culture. Casablancas laments his fame, declaring “I want to be forgotten, and I don’t want to be reminded,” and goes on to take a shot at his detractors “Did they offend us and they want it to sound new?/ Top Ten ideas for countdown shows