Arty Pop Stars Bust Their Asses

Coolly invincible pros earn haters' grudging respect through displays of subtle craft

The Strokes were invented in 1998 on a mythical island in the Aegean by a wicked demiurge. While busking at Euro Disney a short while later, they decided to discover Manhattan and form a prominent rock band, no matter if Marcello and Alistair and D'Artagnan had names better suited to sporting eye patches and blackmailing Erica Kane.

They are very famous even though no one can remember which one dates Demi Moore and which one is Justin. When they grow up they will marry the Hilton sisters and live happily ever after on MTV Cribs. Their favorite color is black, their turn-ons are bathroom stalls and limousines, and they're related to Rod Stewart or maybe one of the founders of Simon & Schuster, somebody previously important like that. No, that probably isn't really them on Friendster.

All obligatory biographical crap accounted for, we can now "discuss the new Strokes record." That, of course, is code for "mentioning lots of cool old bands." However, rather than imagining combos of CB's also-rans nobody under 40 has ever heard (Willy Deville fronting Tuff Darts?), those crits who shot their punk name-drop wad with Is This It have progressed to new wave comparisons. The Cars are my favorite, and not because there's a synth on "12:51." Blankly charismatic frontman? Check. Guitarist surgically inserting discrete melodies mid-song? Check. (Nick Valensi puts Elliott Easton to shame—I mean, we're in Steve Lukather, even Neil Geraldo territory here.) Arty pop band conceals conceptual vacuum at its core with precisely deployed hooks plus sleek grooves and generates disproportionately heated debate about its historical significance? Um, check. And. Mate.

Word is they're related to Rod Stewart, or somebody previously important like that.
photo: Colin Lane
Word is they're related to Rod Stewart, or somebody previously important like that.

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The Strokes
Room on Fire
RCA

Then again, maybe those connections ring true because you can compare these metaphor magnets to anyone. They're like Wesley Clark (distinguished tabula rasa as locus for disparate if not contradictory projected desires), like the Yankees (coolly invincible pros earn haters' grudging respect through displays of subtle craft), like The O.C. and overripe pomegranates and spayed puppies and the square root of negative one. (No space to elaborate here, but I could link every one had we but world enough and time.) But most of all, the Strokes sound and look and move and live like a rock band in a movie about a rock band, except the movies invariably get it wrong and the Strokes are always all too right.

What about the new record? S'great, better even than the last. The struggle to surpass what once came naturally, to bust your asses to sound like you're not busting your asses, overwhelms most bands on their second outing. But anything that ruffles the Strokes is a plus. Is This It really did seem to come too easy, so minimal an expenditure of effort that the band could hardly even revel in their show of mastery. Not to worry—they remain clinical bastards who've heard tell that music can be loose and passionate, but aren't about to flub a note to find out. Freelance Hellraiser didn't choose "Hard to Explain" for half a mash-up at random, after all—each carefully honed part here sounds like it was recorded in a separate hemisphere, then slotted together seamlessly by some genius mixmaster.

The difference this time is Julian Casablancas and his heroic endeavor to express a feeling. His default sigh, now slid a notch from Iggy-decadent toward Roxy-wistful, may lament that all romance is doomed, a profundity sure to dazzle starlets while paving tomorrow morning's escape route. Yet he also shreds his throat on "Reptilia," barking "You're not trying hard" at a band that for once nearly is. Assuming lines like "I was a train moving too fast" aren't about little Julian's ejaculation time, the frenetic rush he bemoans would seem to be that of time, not on his side. From "Talk to me now I'm older" to "You're young darling, but not for long," Julian obsesses over a touchingly ordinary preoccupation of the idle and callow—aging. Money might buy you love, after all, but eternal youth's not on the market. Yet.

Everything that initially made some of us skeptical of the Strokes' charms—the rock-is-back guff, the aristotrash pedigree, the aloof slouch—now makes some of us susceptible. These concerns, all apparently extra-musical, all largely outside the band's control, are still inescapably audible: trad formalism, noblesse oblige, bad posture, all encoded in every tempered moan, robotic beat, exact lick. But formalism is just another word for knowing what works, stars always twinkle above us commoners, and aloofness is an excellent substitute for genuine mystique in a pinch. As existence nips away at their privilege, the Strokes seem less like an annotated post-punk compendium and more like a collaborative human effort. Or maybe by simply sticking around they've bequeathed themselves the ultimate luxury: Now they just sound a lot like the Strokes.


The Strokes play Madison Square Garden October 29.

 
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