"I thought we were
playing a bar," singer Julian Casablancas said 11 songs into the
Strokes' set at the ornate Park West on Tuesday, the release date
for the band's third album, during the first show of a
buzz-generating small-venue blitz. "But this is nice."
When the New York
City quintet first performed in Chicago in February 2001, it played
at the Empty Bottle, opening for its heroes Guided by Voices. A
group of high school friends who had never played in other bands,
the Strokes aspired to reach the level of GBV, selling perhaps
30,000 albums to devoted hipsters in the indie-rock underground.
Casablancas and his mates were branded as the latest group destined
to "save" rock 'n' roll. Their debut, "Is This It?," scored platinum
sales of a million copies, but the 2003 followup, "Room on Fire,"
only did half as well. The alleged saviors have been battling
unrealistic expectations ever since, and those are still in evidence
in many reviews of the excellent new "First Impressions of Earth."
that the Strokes still would like to be the middle band on a bill at
the Bottle. But with the new disc, they seem finally to be tuning
out what other people think they should be and reveling in what they
are: extremely tuneful garage-rock minimalists with a sleek and
streamlined sound capable of erupting into inspired bursts of
controlled fury or taking subtle and unexpected detours into other
To be sure, the
first album's more propulsive songs -- among them "Last Nite," "Take
It or Leave It" and "New York City Cops" -- garnered the most
enthusiastic response from fans during a no-nonsense, 75-minute,
18-song set. But newer, slightly more experimental tunes --
including the bass-driven single "Juicebox," the slyly funky
"Razorblade" and the amped-up saloon song "15 Minutes" -- showed
that the artists have enough colors on their palette to provide
endless variations of their basic formula, while simultaneously
delivering more of that speeding-subway-train sound that fans love.
set, Casablancas' deceptively laconic vocals were as distinctive and
endearing as ever -- he has one of the best rock deliveries since
Kurt Cobain -- and guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.
were the unstoppable engines driving the group's crazy rhythms.
But as always,
drummer Fabrizio Moretti -- a k a "Drew Barrymore's boyfriend," if
you're addicted to People or Us magazines -- was the band's MVP, a
virtual machine whose rhythms were unrelenting and undeniable.
In fact, midway
through the show, when Moretti dropped a beat during one of the
group's new tunes, it came as welcome evidence that the musicians
are human after all, rather than as a distracting mistake.
cracked a smile after that gaffe, one of many he flashed during the
performance. Critics, fans and industry insiders still may want him
to be "the next Kurt," but he seems to have acquired the ability to
shrug that off and simply enjoy being the leader of one of the most
consistent and exciting bands in modern rock.