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This is the stuff of which legends are really made: Young New York City Band writes a few great songs; U.K. critics write a few fawning cover stories; young New York City Band is written off by the Underground. Yawn. Nay, urp—who doesn’t find instant adulation and knee-jerk repudiation hard to swallow? The story’s as old as Bruce Springsteen. And he’s pretty old.
“Rock ‘n’ roll” is a myth, of course; the Strokes, like the White Stripes, constitute today’s critically celebrated version of that myth. Peep their revolutionary models: The Stripes follow Blind Willie McTell and the Kinks; the Strokes, Television and the Stooges. (Though I hear the Kinks and Stooges in both. Whatever.) I recently read that good evidence suggests Tyrannosaurus rex never hunted, but scavenged. Paleontologists, ever proud of their long-extinct, alpha-male star, mostly refuse to hear this hypothesis out. Luckily for reviewers, the fantasy element of rock ‘n’ roll’s lore allows newcomers to mount their flesh on old bones (after boning up on master texts, of course). In other words: Sweat the technique, not your historical moment. Or the message your appropriated medium once embodied.
Perspiration needs inspiration. The Coup, Lightning Bolt, Destiny’s Child, Kid606, and other formal innovators dedicate their energies to defining their time. Julian Casablancas, the Strokes’ singer and songwriter, achieves the next best thing: defining his 23-year-old self in songs propulsive enough to jar misgivings out of your head. Although the Strokes have been portrayed as arrogant, their music never sounds that way. Although they’ve been described as shallow, let’s get wasted and fuck, OK? There are enough cold fish in the sea, from men who’d rather spray women with champagne than drink it with them to those who just drink alone. After all, the Coup were being only partly ironic when they named their trouble-crunking new album Party Music.
Meanwhile, the Strokes were being only partly rhetorical when they named their beep-if-you’re-horny album Is This It. The real question is, What more does Casablancas want? It’s “Hard to Explain,” apparently. Rock stars—always leaving the details to the critics. (Too bad I’m just a 22-year-old slut.) Fortunately, Sonic Youth already explained the problem: Confusion is sex. In “Barely Legal,” Casablancas claims, “I just want/to turn you down/I just want/to turn you around,” as if he’s not just talking dirty. Sade already tackled the “Sweetest Taboo”; Julian could care less about subverting social conventions—he just wants to “steal your innocence.”
Sade sounds satisfied; Casablancas, simply fried. His band—Fabrizio Moretti (drums), Albert Hammond Jr. (guitar), Nick Valensi (guitar), and Nikolai Fraiture (bass)—apes chaos by piling out-of-sync precision guitar parts and melodic basslines over hyper r&b beats. If these guys have ever written a ponderous tune, they left it out of Is This It‘s perfectly sequenced 11-track arc. The disc’s peak, “When It Started,” veers from Chuck Berry jitter to garage-rock disco to heartfelt balladry in under three minutes, and it wasn’t even included on early promotional copies of Is This It. “New York City Cops,” an anthem as likely inspired by the B-52s as Black Flag, held its spot. (Allow me to digress for a moment: Like most anthems about police, the song does not treat its subject kindly: “They ain’t that smart,” Casablancas declares. Now is indeed the time to recognize and grieve with, not blithely ridicule, our city’s crime- and firefighting forces. And there are worse things than self-censorship—scapegoating and government encroachment on privacy, for instance. One simply hopes that we have not lost our will to dissent.)
Besides switching songs, some label schmo—perhaps even the Strokes themselves!—decided that Is This It‘s U.S. cover should be changed from the profile of a woman’s bare ass to a totally lame abstract shot produced by a microscope (telescope? I forget which). How inappropriate. Casablancas doesn’t study things up close or from, uh, far away. He calls ’em as he sees ’em, and what he’d really like to see is a woman’s bare ass. Even his very convincing, blue ballad voice comes off a little like a model’s seductive frown. Said tone receives full treatment in the relatively subdued titular tune, with its tweedling guitar and hopscotching bass, but everywhere else it gets folded into belting, moaning, and his bandmates’ stomping tear. This is as it should be. Three minutes after swearing he’ll only “pretend” to leave, Casablancas tells a lover to “take it sleazy” on his way out the door. The confusion in his confidence puts the yelp in his Lou Reed.
If you like one Strokes song, you’ll like their whole album. But when in doubt, put on the ragged, thrashing “Last Night.” Once again, Casablancas is walking out “that door,” but before even crossing the threshold he starts the story over, and over: She whines about how he won’t let her in, so he has no choice but to pretend to leave. Last night, and every night of his life. And this song, which constantly doubles back upon itself: They’re all the same. Equal parts trifle and truffle, like all legendary rock ‘n’ roll. Legend doesn’t mean shit to artists who keep moving; critics have no excuse for not keeping up. As for the Strokes: Stop this mystery train, they wanna get off.
The Strokes play Hammerstein Ballroom October 31.