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Hype. It"s a bitch. Ascending mediocre bands to heights of unwarranted popularity, and smacking the truly great down to "critics" pet" status, hype has become a plague on any band hoping to achieve unbridled adoration among music elitists. When the media hounds smell success and respond with their annual cry of "saviors of rock and roll," disappointment is inevitable. So it goes with the Strokes, a band that"s seen enough publicity in 2001 to make bin Laden jealous.
Touted by the press as "the forefathers of a bold new era in rock," "the greatest rock band since the Rolling Stones" and "the second coming of the Velvet Underground," the Strokes have nowhere to go but out of style. And the album only came out last week! So why all the fanfare? Are they really that good? Of fucking course not. There is no bold new era in rock; the Rolling Stones have yet to be contended with; and if there ever is a second coming of the Velvet Underground, they won"t be doing second-rate imitations of Lou Reed.
The Strokes are not deities. Nor are they "brilliant," "awe-inspiring," or "genius." They"re a rock band, plain and simple. And if you go into this record expecting nothing more than that, you"ll probably be pretty pleased. See, while I can"t agree with the Strokes" messianic treatment, I"d be lying if I said I thought Is This It was anything other than a great rock record.
What"s refreshing to me about the Strokes is that, in a musical climate where even the dirtiest garage bands can create the illusion of million-dollar studio techniques through sound filters on mom"s Packard-Bell, the Strokes prefer to rock in the classic vein: no laser sounds, no ethereal reverb, no pre-programmed Aphex beats. Their influences are so firmly rooted in the post-punk tradition that it"s as if the last two decades had never occurred. The same names are always dropped: the Velvet Underground, Television, the Stooges. And while the Velvets are obviously a major source of inspiration, the Strokes" only similarity to Television and the Stooges is the confidence with which they play.
Frontman Julian Casablancas" vocals bear more than a passing resemblance to early Lou Reed, but where Reed seemed to accidentally dispense life-changing lyrics through a drugged drawl, Julian sings about the simple trivialities of big-city life with stark lucidity. These songs revolve around frustrated relationships, never coming near to approaching anything that might resemble insight. Yet, with Casablancas" self-assured, conversational delivery, and the almost primal energy of the four guys backing him, attention shifts from the simply present lyrics to the raging wall of melody these guys bang out like it"s their lifeblood.
There"s a hint of Britain"s post-punk 70s in the Strokes" frenetic furor. Bands like the Buzzcocks and Wire subscribed to a similar less-is-more production aesthetic, and seemed naturally adept at scribbling out instantly approachable melodies. And like Singles Going Steady (and, to a lesser extent, Pink Flag), there"s something in the Strokes" melodies that few other bands possess: they"re immediate without pandering, relying on the instant gratification of solid, driving rhythms while maintaining strong but simple hooks that seem somehow familiar, yet wholly original.
Their production is stripped raw, and not terribly divergent from that of their band-of-the-moment contemporaries, the White Stripes. But the difference between the two bands lies in their degrees of skill: the Stripes have an air of amateurishness that belies songwriter Jack White"s obvious talents; the Strokes, even on their debut album, sound like experienced professionals for whom mastering the form seems only an album away.
"The Modern Age" stomps like a renegade elephant with bashed kickdrums and turbulent guitar riffs while Casablancas passionately reels off, "Work hard and say it"s easy/ Do it just to please me/ Tomorrow will be different/ So this is why I"m leaving," in an unsteady sing-speak that invokes all the right elements of a great rock leadman. "Last Nite" quakes with growled vocals and bluesy, blustery distortion. "Hard to Explain" eerily recalls the blissful pop of the Wrens" Secaucus with an unforgettable hook, distorted drumkits and fuzzed-out ride cymbals.
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Of course, none of this changes the fact that Is This It lacks the creativity and unconventionality inherent in any of the all-time great rock bands they"re so impulsively compared to. Still, the Strokes have struck an incredible balance between the two extremes of rock music: sentimentality and listlessness. Any sentimentality in these songs" lyrics is countered by Casablancas" self-reliant indifference, and his listless delivery is offset by the band"s fervid attack. Beyond that, it"s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about the Strokes that keeps me listening. All I know is that it"s not easy to come by, and I like it. A lot.