On fire: The Strokes’ return ignites rock airwaves again

September 17th, 2003

By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic

Through the title of their 2001 debut album, the Strokes asked the million-dollar question most bands in their position inevitable face: “Is This It?”

Later this month, they’ll have their answer. “Room on Fire” (RCA) ****, the long-awaited follow-up to one of the best albums in recent years, is in stores Oct. 28 and the quintet has already hit the road promoting it (the Chicago stop is Sunday at the Aragon).

The challenge the Strokes face is, after almost two years of nonstop touring and a glut of glowing press, they are princes positioned to be toppled. Two years ago times were different. Amid the waning days of nu metal and kiddie pop, the trim production and tunefulness of their 11-song debut sounded like it came from another planet. Unlike what dominated MTV, the Strokes did not appear to have a gimmick – or at least they had a new one due for renewal. They didn’t flaunt tattoos, wear horror masks or baseball hats, and not one stripper appeared in their videos or grinding beside them onstage. Instead, they looked like the epitome of slacker chic – wearing jeans, moptopped hair and corduroy jackets with boredom venting out of every pore on their faces. As for personal details, they were a different pedigree than Eminem or Fred Durst with a resume including private schools, a preference for cheap beer over Krystal and a reported appreciation for fine literature (and hey, reportedly they have a favorite book, too: “The Count of Monte Cristo”). In rock’s long history of anti-rock stars, of bands from the punk era that weren’t punk at all, the Strokes are the latest chapter. No wonder fans of their predecessors – the Velvet Underground, Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones – cheered.

Although “Is This It” did not have the commercial impact of “Nevermind” by Nirvana (the last anti-rock band that rewrote the rules of its day), it did open the floodgates for bands that otherwise would have been relegated to independent labels and caught the attention of underground press. Since the Strokes debut, major labels and mainstream media have been trolling for bands with a similar back-to-basics style in blue collar outposts like Detroit and Stockholm. But like the way most trends play out, most bands proved to have the songs to back them up (the White Stripes, the Kills, Soundtrack Of Our Lives, the Hives) while others (the Mooney Suzuki; the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs; the Sounds) just got the hair right.

Even so, this surplus of new rock bands remains exciting for the simple reason of volume. With so many new bands coming out of the woodwork, there si a clear alternative for people passionate about music that is once agin meant to be played live and is not strictly about a marketable video image. And since only the White Stripes have sold a million albums so far, there is also little fear that these bands will ever rise past the level of the small clubs and theaters and into the arenas. For people repelled by the narrow playlists at corporate radio, here is a chance to discover new bands for cheap at your neighborhood bar – just like the old days.

Truth is, even though the Strokes may be heralded as the first in the garage rock renaissance, they sound like no band that’s come in their wake. “Room on Fire” is a testimonial to their strengths – the dual guitar combat of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., the machine-like rhythms of drummer Fabrizio Moretti, the bobbing syncopations of bassist Nikolai Fraiture and the drunkard’s drone-over-the-telephone vocals of singer Julian Casablancas. There won’t be the excitement over this album like the first, but that’s only because we’ve heard this sound before. The real thrill of this second set of 11 songs is how their sound still manages to get in your face for maximum impact.

It almost wasn’t meant to be. Producer Nigel Godrich, known for designing spacey atmospheres for Radiohead and Beck, was first hired to give the band a chance for maturity. They opted out and went back to Gordon Raphael, in charge of “Is This It,” instead. The reported reason was comfort level, although nothing about “Room on Fire” sounds like a band sliding backward. Raphael gets a brawnier, more confident performance out of this band. Everything – the machine gunning drums, Casablancas’ growling vocals and the razor-sharp guitar duels – sound beefed up and more aggressive, the result of a road-tested band still hungry. If comparisons are to be made, the Strokes’ second volume is like Television’s “Adventure” (Elektra) and Talking Heads’ “More Songs About Buildings and Food” (Sire) – albums that don’t make giant leaps of invention, but cement what the band’s strengths are and then som.

At a little more than 33 minutes, the album never takes a breath. A line in the sand separating the Strokes’ from their garage rock peers is their intuitive sense of pop melody. Taking a cue from vintage ’80s bands like the Cars, “12:51” rides a surfing synthesizer line buttoned by handclaps. The rhythm section keeps switching templates – from paint bucket slop to tinny techno beats fired with deadly precision. That inherent energy is bolstered by Hannd and Valensi, whose individual playing filters into a sexy, album-length duet. While one riffs the rhythm, the other colors in the pockets, and back and forth. Their playful interaction and crisp style is about economy first, but it’s also about giving the entire song a strict urgency without losing an ounce of cool.

Singer-songwriter Casablancas steps up to his role as lead instigator. His skuzzy, distorted vocals melt inside “Under Construction,” a Southern-style soul tune. He is the child of Mick Jagger’s “Satisfaction” – restlessness and personal strife underscores everything eh sings. On “You Talk Way Too Much,” he screams his way out of a relationship – “give me some time/I just need a little time” – then counters for the soft sell, crooning to negotiate, “you talk way too much/it’s only the end.” With the room on fire, he’s standing in the middle fighting for his life to get some space.

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