Strokes' latest album takes root, thrives


January 3, 2006


With their 2001 debut "Is This It?," the Strokes were burdened with more unreasonable expectations than any band in the last 15 years, since Kurt Cobain traded his position as a roadie for the Melvins for a place atop the pop charts.

Coldplay might have been expected to resuscitate Capitol Records with last year's "X & Y," but the Strokes were pegged to save rock 'n' roll itself at a point early in the new millennium when the music was mired in the post-alternative doldrums and overshadowed by gangsta rap at one extreme and tepid teen-pop at the other.

On top of that, the quintet was supposed to redeem the incredible legacy of New York circa the punk and New Wave explosions of the '70s; remind us that guitar, bass and drums were still vital instruments in the era of computer sampling, and generally surpass the sexy, snotty, bad-boy behavior of the New York Dolls, if not the Rolling Stones, who, after all, set the standard.

Given all of this, it's hardly surprising that the group's second album, 2003's "Room on Fire," not only failed to live up to the hype, but prompted a flood of critical revisionism about the previously much-hailed debut. But the Strokes themselves had never aspired to walk on water; from the beginning, they simply wanted to get drunk, play loud and perfect insanely tuneful variations of their basic formula of delightfully droning vocal melodies, speeding subway train rhythms and catchy guitar lines that intertwined like copulating snakes.

In these regards, the band succeeded on both of its earlier offerings, with "Room on Fire" standing as only slightly less of a treat than "Is This It?" And Julian Casablancas and the boys deliver once again with album No. 3, "First Impressions of Earth."

While many reviewers are measuring the Strokes against other "New Wave of New Wave bands," from the glam-rock Killers to Brooklyn mope-rockers such as Interpol, their real peers are Detroit's White Stripes, the only other group that rivals Casablancas & Company's devotion to minimalism and ability to do so much with so little.

Just as Jack White subtly spiced the stew on last year's "Get Behind Me Satan" with just enough marimba, grand piano and country hoe-down to sound fresh while maintaining the primary flavors of his searing guitar and Meg White's monolithic rhythms, the Strokes expand their palette on "First Impressions of Earth" with perfectly placed snatches of Mellotron (on "Ask Me Anything," a gorgeous ballad, and a first for the band), a few looser and more expansive guitar jams (most notably on "Vision of Division"), a blatant cop of the bass line from "The Peter Gunn Theme" (the single "Juicebox") and even a hint of funk ("Razorblade").

All the while, they continue to hone their primary weapons of Casablancas' gleefully laconic, slurred/sneered vocals, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.'s white-light, white-heat guitars, and bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti's crazy rhythms, the best of this sort since New York's late, lamented Feelies, who, after all, set the standard.

Credit goes in part to producer David Kahne, an old-school music-industry hack and an extremely controversial choice in the underground rock world, where he'll forever be villainized as the man who balked at Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and drove the Chicago group from Reprise Records. Notoriously clueless about current events, the Strokes probably didn't know about that fiasco, and in any event, Kahne wisely favored the methods he used when recording Paul McCartney's Russian concert album rather than, say, polishing the Bangles, keeping his hands off the mix while goading the Strokes in pre-production to be all that they could be.

"At times, [Kahne] could be pretty harsh with us," Valensi recently told the Sydney Morning Herald. "It was a little bit like going to school or going to work -- like entering an atmosphere of uncertainty -- and it was good, because being in a rock band, a lot of the time things can be so laid-back, where it's like, 'If I play it sloppy it doesn't matter, nobody really cares.'"

The irony here is that the Strokes have always been one of the tightest, least sloppy and most hard-working bands in modern rock -- for all the guff they've gotten about their trust-fund upbringings, they were famous for rehearsing for 10 hours a day, seven days a week -- and they are just as serious about live performance. (The group is celebrating the release of the new album, which arrives in stores today, with a blitzkrieg small-club tour that starts tonight at Park West.)

If there's a lyrical theme to the group's third album, it's the acceptance of the inevitability of aging. "You are young, darling, for now, but not for long," Casablancas sings in "Under Control." But for all his confessions about being jaded -- "I'm tired of everyone I know / Of everyone I see," he croons in "On the Other Side" -- the joy that he and his bandmates find in these brilliantly simple grooves and irresistible melodies is still palpable, and absolutely infectious.