Are The Strokes really the saviours of rock ‘n’ roll? Well, yeah, maybe they are. With their stunning debut album, Is This It, five unlikely preppy hipster ruffians from New York City have stripped rock ‘n’ roll to its core, kicked it in the head, and created an unstoppably twitchy and exciting record that may just have what it takes to save rock music from the computers.
Consider the so-called alternative rock environment into which Is This It has been boisterously released (amid the clattering of cymbals and the drooling enthusiasm of critics everywhere). In 2001, alternative rock radio is dominated by that harbinger of doom, nu-metal, and the last remains of the mainstay bands of the nineties seem to be stuttering and coughing themselves into irrelevant oblivion. The new decade – hell, the new century – and the direction of rock music seems to be unsteady and blearily uncertain at best.
Enter The Strokes. If The Velvet Underground and Guided By Voices got together to crank out some staccato tunes on the reel-to-reel, the result would be something like Is This It.
But front man Julian Casablancas is more than a listless Lou Reed in a battered leather jacket with mussed hair and a drink in his hand. He talk-sings his way through this collection of songs like a man possessed, and while his lyrics may seem to focus on the mundane and trivial aspects of big city life and failed or failing relationships, his delivery is so thick with off-the-cuff self-reliance, that it’s easy to imagine him among such greats as Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, or Joey Ramone.
As for the rest of the exotically named Strokes, Fab Moretti is a machine-gunner with impeccable precision, and Nikolai Fraiture’s bass thumps with alternate levels of steely calm and funky bounciness. Albert Hammond Jr’s staccato guitar hacks ham-handedly through the mix in all the right places, and Nick Valensi is a champion of silky smooth jazz fuzziness (for example, see his fantastic solo in Trying My Luck).
Is This It opens with a bit of pseudo-futuristic tape noise before Casablancas croaks, “Can’t you see I’m trying? I don’t even like it. I just lied to get to your apartment.” Here, The Strokes lay the groundwork for an album that bounces from lazy East Village bohemian avant-garde to bouncy, dirty garage freneticism.
The Modern Age – an answer to The Velvets’ New Age? – opens with rapid fire drums and back-beat guitar thunking, with Casablancas’ trademark fuzzed-out vocals taking the forefront. He sings, “Work hard and say it’s easy. Do it just to please me.” And this may just sum up The Strokes’ approach. They make it look effortless, but in a sea of fledgling garage rock bands vying for radio play in this uncertain age, trying to maintain the necessary levels of irreverence and brashness, The Strokes come off as a group of savvy professionals with a sound that’s just as well-honed as their apparently effortless thrift-store style of dress.
The stunning singles, Someday and Last Nite both serve as welcome reminders of what a rock ‘n’ roll single can accomplish. This is music you can dance to, or it’s music that goes well with a few beers (or a round of Family Feud with Robert Pollard and company). In Someday, Casablancas sings, “I’m working so I won’t have to try so hard,” over the bounciest, danciest hook this side of the nineties. And while Last Nite opens in dangerously similar fashion to Tom Petty‘s American Girl, the song itself explodes into low-fidelity, backbeat revelry with Casablancas in complete control of the seemingly chaotic proceedings.
And while Casablancas laments that people, girlfriends, and spaceships may never understand, the answer seems obvious: While it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes The Strokes the likely forerunners on the new rock ‘n’ roll frontier, they’ve certainly got something indefinable working in their favour. They may not really be the second coming of the Velvet Underground, but Is This It is exactly what a rock ‘n’ roll album should sound like, equally calling on its influences and pushing forward in brash discontentedness.
In the case of The Strokes, the hype is well placed. Still, the best course of action may be to forget the so-called garage rock revolution and have some fun.