Strokes of genius New York rockers true to their city's soul
October 5, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Great rock 'n' roll can be amazingly effective at evoking the
look, the feel, the rhythm, and even the smell of a place. Who can hear the
Beach Boys or the Mamas and the Papas without thinking of sunny California?
John Mellencamp summons images of Indiana the same way that Gloria Estefan
conjures Miami and Chuck Berry says St. Louis. And there has never
been a better musical depiction of driving down Lake Shore Drive than the
Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" (and don't dare mention that
lame song by Aliotta, Haynes, and Jeremiah!).
Similarly, "Is This It?," the much-hyped debut by the New York quintet
the Strokes, is an album that embodies the experience of walking the streets
of Manhattan--with all of the attendant edginess, electricity, and sensory
overload--more convincingly than any music since the finest efforts by the
Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and the Ramones (all of whom were
obvious influences, especially the Velvets).
Whether the tragic circumstances of Sept. 11 have made such a thoroughly
"New York" rock album more or less vital and appropriate now is a question
of debate. I agree with my colleague Richard Roeper, who pointed out the
absurdity of scouring all of popular culture for references that someone
might find offensive when he wrote about the STARZ network subbing "Trading
Places" for "Passenger 57," only to find that the climactic scene of the
former takes place outside the World Trade Center.
The Strokes have already suffered a bit from such thinking: the release
of the album was delayed a week in order to remove the song "NYC Cops,"
which is mildly critical of that city's finest--even though I've never met a
New Yorker who isn't critical of everything about New York. But make
no mistake: The same over-the-top energy and in-your-face attitude that
makes the Strokes great is what's giving New Yorkers the strength to
"If you listen to the album, the influences are very wide," drummer
Fabrizio Moretti said, back before the events of mid-September. "I can't say
that it's always justified, the comparisons [to bands like the Velvets]. I
think it's just that when you come from the city, there's a certain vibe
that comes across in your music. It's not necessarily in the notes that you
play and the lyrics that you sing--it's just a little bit of the energy.
You've got a bunch of people stacked all on top of each other here, so
there's gonna be that little taste of New York in the music."
"It wasn't like we sat down and said, 'Let's shoot for this [sound],' "
added guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. "It was the opposite--like, 'Gimmicks
don't last. They're great to boost you up fast, but then they go away.'
Pretty much it was just [singer-songwriter] Julian [Casablancas] trying to
write good melodies, but with [guts], and it just so happens that those
songs remind people of the '70s. Stuff like Limp Bizkit and Korn--that's not
[guts] to me. That's fake, like putting steroids in your body."
The question of "real" versus "fake" is one that has plagued the Strokes
in their always-cynical hometown. Doubters attack them for being a group of
"spoiled rich kids" who've benefited from a series of unbelievably lucky
breaks and a tidal wave of hype. But there are some problems with this
First, though all but one of the five musicians are indeed children of
privilege (Casablancas' father, John, is the founder of the famous modeling
agency and chain of modeling schools), that didn't make them immune from the
universal experiences of teenage alienation and unrequited love/romantic
misery, the major themes of the album.
Second, the Strokes are far from being an overnight success. They spent
countless hours woodshedding in a cramped rehearsal space and played plenty
of awful Tuesday night gigs for three years before England's Rough Trade
Records heard a demo and decided to release an E.P. "The Modern Life" whet
the appetites of the press and fans in America and the U.K., and the Strokes
made true believers of both on a series of hard-hitting tours. Eventually,
it all led to an American deal and the RCA debut.
Finally, and most importantly, hype is irrelevant when the music is
good--and the Strokes are very, very good indeed. Even if there is nothing
earthshakingly original in the subway-train rhythms, monotone vocals, and
frantic guitars of tunes such as "Someday," "Last Nite" and "Barely Legal,"
the band expertly synthesizes its influences.
"Julian is able to take some influences, listen to something, take what's
good from it, and leave behind what's bad," said guitarist Nick Valensi. "He
can listen to the Beach Boys and leave behind the wimpy stuff and only take
these cool chord progressions or unheard-of melodies. He can listen to
Freddy King and take all the [guts] and aggression that you get from it but
leave behind the standard blues progressions."
At its best, the Strokes' music is energizing, urgent, infectious, and
darn near impossible to ignore--much like the city that inspired it. And
where does this raw and raucous band fit among twentysomething peers like
Britney Spears and Fred Durst, 'N Sync and Eminem?
"I really don't worry about it," Casablancas said. "Maybe we're somewhere
in the middle--somewhere between hardcore and the cheesy, commercial,
melodic stuff. And that's somewhere I want to be, I think--all the really
good artists were like halfway between commercial and intellectual.
"I just want it to be good," he continued. "I'm one of those guys that
thinks music is more objective than subjective. There's sort of like a
quality in music that you can't pin down--whether it's a Bob Marley song or
an old man humming out of key. I can say that the Bob Marley song is
beautiful, but you might like the old man better."
Me, I think I'll stick with "Is This It?"