Between the decade coming to a close and Julian Casablancas’ newly released debut solo album, Phrazes For The Young, there has been an upswing in discussions of The Strokes online and in print. And while the band has appeared to have quietly taken an indefinite hiatus to pursue various solo projects, decade-end lists all but demand a discussion of the band’s influence and merit. Is This It? undoubtedly made its mark, spawning countless bands attempting to recreate The Strokes spartan hooks and effortless swagger. But I would say the Strokes inadvertently launched a thousand bands with a single instrumental choice: Nick Valensi tweaked his guitar amp to sound like a synthesizer on Room On Fire’s “12:51,” and an army of 21st century guitar-centric pop bands responded by buying synthesizers.
Worse things could have happened. Given the embarrassingly childish and thuggish sounds that dominated alt-rock radio during the second half of the nineties, I’ll happily put up with the Bravery in the aughts if it means bands like Staind and Korn fade into the background. I’d rather listen to bands copy Gang of Four, The Cure, and Joy Division than Rage Against the Machine. Most of the 21st century imitators are, at their very worst, tolerable, if completely uninspired. Check out The Swimmers. No one’s going to call their second album, People Are Soft, a watershed moment in the development of synth-pop, but it’s thoroughly and consistently not bad.
Perhaps it’s unfair to use The Swimmers review as the format to note a general lack of originality prevalent in upbeat guitar-pop bands across the country, but surely the band is aware of the musical history they’ve walked into. The Swimmers may have co-opted a few sounds from their forebears, but they’re pretty damn good at it, so it’s reasonable to expect that they are paying pretty close attention. “Shelter” opens with a grabber of a synth hook, complimented well by a buoyant bass-line. What’s more, “Shelter” shows The Swimmers to be fairly casual with their hooks, demonstrating admirable restraint with a strong chorus that a lesser band would have beaten into the ground. The next song is even better. “A Hundred Hearts,” one of the more restrained songs on People Are Soft, marries a winning chord progression to a cascading synth line, and the results are legitimately touching.
From there, People Are Soft takes a minor dip in quality and levels off. More disappointingly, the lyrics tend to go in a direction that has been notoriously troublesome since The Strokes ascension to stardom. That is to say, there are too many lines about “the city” and “the scene.” This might be a very specific and personal complaint, but this sort of thing tends to aggravate me. People write songs, start bands, play shows at clubs and bars, and then, in a bizarrely cyclical turn of events, start writing songs about the people they see at clubs and bars. Some people can get away with it: Craig Finn, for example, and Dan Bejar can be pretty cutting about artistic types, but most people who write about this sort of thing tend to rely on boring tropes, calling out their fellow revelers for being scenesters. It’s the type of petty backbiting that only makes going out seem more and more unappealing. The Swimmers are far from the worst offenders in this regard, but even its minor presence was enough to detract from my enjoyment of People Are Soft.
Otherwise, The Swimmers don’t venture far out enough to risk losing the listener. There’s a general competence to People Are Soft that will certainly earn the band its share of supporters. The guitars are appropriately muscular; the synthesizers keep the mood spirited even as the lyrics succumb to familiar gloominess. Maybe The Swimmers are not a band that will rattle anyone’s conception of what guitar-pop should be, but if this sort of clever, well-written music has trouble being heard because too many other bands sound like them, that bodes pretty well for music in general. No?