Casablancas and Co. burn through songs from 'Fire'

October 21, 2003


Returning to Chicago a week before the release of their second album -- arguably the most anticipated disc of 2003 -- the Strokes knew they had something to prove, especially after the show was moved from the UIC Pavilion to the smaller Aragon Ballroom.

The New York City quintet's first gig here in support of "Room on Fire" was to have taken place once the album was already in stores, but the release date was pushed back several times as the group's singer and primary songwriter, Julian Casablancas, a dedicated perfectionist, continued to obsess over everything from the mix to the artwork.

While a significant number of fans at the packed Aragon seemed to have heard the new music in advance via leaks on the Internet (and they sang along with the choruses), many others were still turning out to see what the fuss was about, and whether this band could possibly live up to the avalanche of hype that greeted its 2001 debut, "Is This It."

'Minimalist masters' live up to hype with sophomore CD




When it arrives in stores next week, the Strokes' much-anticipated second album will be a disappointment only if you've joined the terminally misguided rock press in heaping unfounded expectations on the group.

Always eager to label and box in any exciting new sound, the Strokes were dubbed the "new Nirvana," the band most likely to reinvigorate modern rock and bring it back to the top of the charts with its 2001 debut, "Is This It" (which did very well indeed, though it wasn't "Nevermind"). The New York quintet was also branded as the standard bearer of a new New York rock scene with fellow travelers such as the Rapture, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol representing the biggest burst of energy in the Big Apple since the punk explosion. Of course, they were '70s revivalists ("Just look at those shag haircuts and leather jackets!"), and a part of "the New Wave of New Wave" ("Hey, they lifted that hook from the Cars!").

The Strokes never claimed to be any of these things; they just wanted to write concise, focused and ultra-tuneful rock songs as good as their heroes in Guided by Voices (whom they in fact leave in the dust). To complain that "Room on Fire" is too much like "Is This It" is to focus only on the superficial aspects of the band's sound: Yes, the rhythms and Julian Casablancas' distorted, droning vocals are the same this time out, but those are as much of a trademark for this band as Lou Reed's nasal whine was in the Velvet Underground or Tom Verlaine's elegiac guitar sound was in Television.

The fact is, each of the 11 tracks on "Room on Fire" stands as a perfectly crafted rock song, with every interlocking instrumental part a paradigm of tuneful precision. These are minimalist masters who don't waste a single note or play any part that doesn't contribute something essential to the song. And in their never-ending search for the perfect hook, they do broaden their horizons here, subtly evoking everything from '50s doo-wop balladry to dub reggae grooves to goofy New Wave keyboards (emulated via the always diverse guitars of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi).

Dismiss the Strokes as overhyped media darlings if you will, or write off "Room on Fire" as evidence of a sophomore slump. But to do so is to not only be thoroughly wrong, but to miss out on one of the strongest and most energizing albums of the year.

Jim DeRogatis







Casablancas and his mates proceeded to win them over and silence the skeptics by playing with a furious precision, unleashing a rapid-fire barrage of 17 songs in less than an hour during the set proper.

The joy of hearing the Strokes onstage and on album is reveling in their sense of tasteful restraint. They are a lover hovering on the verge, prolonging that transcendent moment just before orgasm. Or they are a subway train hurtling precariously down the tracks at top speed; you may have to hang on to the strap for dear life, but there is no danger of the train ever derailing.

Even when things threatened to boil over -- as when Casablancas threw his microphone stand to the floor and jumped into the crowd three songs into the set during a fiery rendition of the new "What Ever Happened?" -- the band was always in complete control.

This is not to say that the delightfully disheveled pretty boys manipulated their audience in the sense of a group that preprograms its every emotional peak. The Strokes' idea of control is all about keeping the emphasis on the concise and brilliantly crafted songs -- where each melodic bass line, tuneful guitar riff and machine-perfect drum part contribute to the tuneful mix -- and maintaining an undeniable forward momentum.

Critics delight in comparing the band to New Wave icons such as Television or the Cars, or to those groups' inspiration, the Velvet Underground. To be sure, there is plenty of all of those bands in the mix. But as the Strokes hone their stage show and move forward with "Room on Fire," the New York-area group that they recall more than any other is the similarly dynamic but restrained powerhouse of the Feelies.

The Strokes update the Feelies' crazy rhythms for a new era via the focused thunder of drummer Fabrizio Moretti (whose style falls somewhere in between the Feelies' Anton Fier and Stanley Demeski and Nirvana's Dave Grohl) and the nonstop blur of motion from curly-haired rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. (who keeps the chords moving at a frantic pace while bassist Nikolai Fraiture and second guitarist Nick Valensi provide the counter-melodies).

On top of it all is Casablancas' wonderfully monotone vocals. To condemn the twentysomething singer for not investing emotion in his words or his performances is to miss the point entirely: Like many of his peers, Casablancas is conflicted, confused and ambivalent. Not since the similarly befuddled Jonathan Richman in the early days of the Modern Lovers has a rocker so effectively captured that "everything is uncertain" adolescent unease.

"I don't want to be forgotten, but I don't want to be reminded," Casablancas sings in "What Ever Happened?" He's addressing a failed romance, but he could just as easily be singing about his conflicted feelings about rock stardom.

Casablancas may not want to be reminded of the many expectations heaped upon his band by outsiders. But as long as the Strokes continue to deliver shows as gripping and powerful as Sunday's set at the Aragon, they won't be forgotten any time soon.