Strokes' showmanship catching up to fanfare


January 6, 2006


"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.

Instead, 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."

One suspects 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 genres.

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.

Throughout the 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.

Casablancas 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.