From The Vault: The Strokes

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When a record is nationally released, it is subjected to a rigorous gauntlet of scrutiny. Even widely acclaimed albums don’t make it through unscathed, typically finding themselves subjected to one or two negative (and often, deliberately contrarian) reviews. Conversely, nearly universally reviled albums can always find at least one champion, some lone voice willing to open him or herself up to anonymous internet mockery in the name of defending an album that has been deemed without merit.

Generally though, with the help of sites like Metacritic and Allmusic, it’s become all too easy to authoritatively state the consensus opinion of an album. From the Vault’s purpose is to question the wisdom of these consensus opinions, searching for value in albums long written off and determining whether commonly praised albums are every bit as commendable as their reputations suggest they are. This feature will usually examine old work by bands releasing new music.

The Strokes’ Room on Fire (2003) & First Impressions of Earth (2006)

I hate to start this feature off with an entry that reaffirms the popular opinions on these two albums but, in this case, it can’t be helped; I really like Room on Fire and am unlikely to listen to First Impressions of Earth ever again. But I don’t expect to encounter too much pushback for saying so. If the recent Pitchfork feature article on the Strokes (which served as a sort of comprehensive history mostly narrated by the band members) is to be believed, even the band is on board with the popular opinion of their second and third albums.

Actually, they even went to the trouble to deflate the rapidly ballooning notion that their newest album, Angles, was going to be a return to form, with lead singer Julian Casablancas responding to the question of whether or not he likes their upcoming album with “I mean… yes… It’s a tough question because I think the whole point was that I was going to let things go, so there’s a bunch of stuff [on the record] I wouldn’t have done.”

So there you go, Strokes fans. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Also, this may be a good time to tighten your grip on your copy of Room on Fire; because it’s likely that album will be the last document of the Strokes as many of us wish they’d always be. Room on Fire, along with their 2001 debut Is This It, not only justified their hipster affectations (bad hygiene, vintage clothing, and generally cagey stage presence), but actually caused the usually cynical indie-rock scene, with a few nay saying exceptions, to wholly embrace this image. The band was just that much in lockstep, musically and personally. Their breakout single, “Last Nite,” demonstrated as much, opening with a series of instruments introducing themselves and immediately falling in line with the agreed upon groove. It was practically instructive about how to write a perfect pop song.

During this time period, no band could match their precision with a hook. Couple that with their collective personae, that of a debauched and effortless cool, and it’s no wonder they ended up on the receiving end of such hyperbolic praise. The British music press ate them up, and Rolling Stone anointed them as the saviors of rock ‘n roll (something that only happens…really quite frequently).

On Is This It, the young band demonstrated a supernatural grasp of taut dynamics. It actually sort of seemed like the Strokes were showing off, which may account for some of the misplaced backlash against them. In retrospect though, the Strokes probably weren’t really showing off until Room on Fire, an album that married the ample pop gifts on display on Is This It with the confidence of an increasingly instrumentally agile band. The hooks were pushed harder (as on lead single, “12:51”) and the guitar solos were faster and more complicated without losing any of their requisite detached flair.

Despite the humble and humbling turns the band has taken (slowing their productivity down to a crawl, preemptively defending an album that hadn’t been reviewed by anyone), the bravado on display on Room on Fire still seems genuine. Only a band feeling invincible could toss off a soul homage as casually immaculate as “Under Control”, or tastefully throw a reggae rhythm into a chorus, as on “Between Love & Hate” (if Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, then surely reggae rhythms are the graveyard of all-white American rock bands). Even bassist Nikolai Fraiture took a moment to strut on the pre-chorus breakdown of “Reptilia”.

Looking back now, Room on Fire has aged better than I anticipated. Maybe it’s attributable to knowing that the Strokes would soon be trafficking in diminishing returns, both in terms of quality and quantity of material. Or maybe it’s just a damn fine party album, one that positively buries Casablancas’ latent melancholy in an avalanche of joyous arrangements replete with guitars meant to sound like synthesizers.

The common knock on Room on Fire is that it’s basically a carbon copy of Is This It. That’s not a totally unfair charge, especially considering how similar the verses of “You Talk Way Too Much” are to the verses of “Soma”. However, this is an instance where I find the homogeneity totally forgivable. Nu-metal was a not too distant memory when Room on Fire was released. Back then, the Strokes very existence was a palate-cleansing gift from god. They could have released 10 consecutive simulacrums of Is This It, and I would have gratefully consumed every last one without complaint. Today, it may not feel as vital as it once did, but it’s still fresh, forceful, and full of brash euphoria.

Despite the mostly positive response to Room on Fire, it would seem the claim that the Strokes lacked musical ambition and depth got to them. How else does one explain the grossly miscalculated over-correction that is First Impressions of Earth?

Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. got right to the heart of the problem in the aforementioned Pitchfork feature: “…when you listen to it, it feels heavy. I had never felt that with us”. As ever, the Strokes were throwing out some technically impressive material; Nick Valensi’s guitar solos were as aerodynamic as ever, and the band seemed a lot more capable of expanding their signature sound than ever before. Yet First Impressions of Earth drags under the weight of their outsized ambitions and Casablancas’ heightened gloominess.

Whereas Casablancas had previously used his minimally expressive voice to suggest an aloof calm, First Impressions finds him determined to grinch up the proceedings. “I’m stuck in a city, but I belong in a field” goes one typically whiny line. Of course, he has the right to get moody (he’s a songwriter, after all), but in light of his established image, the change was just jarring. It was like meeting a wildly entertaining group of people at a party, getting drunk and having a blast with them, and then when you go back to their place, they just mope around and try and read you their poetry.

Lead single “Juicebox” sets the scene pretty effectively. The Peter Gunn knockoff bass line introduces an angrier band no longer out for kicks, and the chorus (“Why don’t you come over here/we’ve got a city to love”) is aggressively shrieked at its target over a bed of punky guitars. “Vision of Division” (there are a lot of titles like that on First Impressions) has plenty of fiery guitar work, and the band works their asses off on the whole, but the endearing nonchalance of their past material is gone. Heavy riffs and tempo changes pile on top of each other and the listener is left more dizzy than impressed. In fact, that description goes a long way to capturing First Impressions many trouble spots.

Then, of course, there are the truly anomalous moments, such as the Magnetic Fields homage “Ask Me Anything”. Built around a clipped cello loop and little else, the song is actually welcome sanctuary from all of the dive-bombing guitars, even if it does provide Casablancas with a wide-open sonic terrain to explore his gloom. He even tees up for critics with a chorus of “I’ve got nothing to say”, either mocking an oft-repeated criticism of his lyrics or simply allowing that there may be some truth to it. Of course, Casablancas does come to his own defense at the album’s close, explaining that he’s part of “an entire generation” that “has nothing to say”.

Whether inadvertently or not, the Strokes used their third album to prove Casablancas’ thesis. To this day, it’s dispiriting to hear a merry band of hedonists turn so joyless on First Impressions. When you strip away that main conceit of the Strokes, the shotgun riffing and lazy crooning feels especially empty. There’s a reason that most of the band members shot off into side projects after First Impressions; the love was clearly gone. The Strokes were no longer five guys having the time of their lives, unified by their jaw-dropping ability to communicate with each other musically. They were audibly working, and that’s not what anyone wants out of their favorite band of carefree drunks.

Still, even if Angles proves to be a bust, the Strokes have had (and can always claim) their moment. The wild sensationalism that greeted their first two albums seems pretty silly in retrospect, but Is this It and Room on Fire are still top-tier party albums. As for the rest, well, they had to grow up sometime.