The Strokes are still On Fire
After a week of listening to the Strokes' new album, Room on Fire, I've come to a tough realization: the album, gasp, is not perfect. It's not perfect because it coexists with the music of 2003 and not the sounds of 2001, the year Is This It transformed contemporary music.
Back then modern music moved to a different beat. For the most part the entire enterprise sucked. Sure, 2001 contained some amazing albums (the Shins' Oh Inverted World, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's debut, and the White Stripes' White Blood Cells to touch on a few), but these, in any narrative, seem to show up to the rock and roll party after Is This It set the stage.
The Strokes' first album hit modern music like a compact energetic juggernaut. The pop establishment instantly felt its fury; "Last Nite" stormed across the country's radio waves and tricked people into thinking that the Strokes were the second coming of some mystical musical messiah on par with the Velvet Underground.
Even if they weren't selling millions in their hot thrift suits, it sure felt like they were, which, for some absurd reason or another, pissed off the faux-cool indie crowd into dismissing them as sellouts.
Unfortunately for them and hopefully not for you, they missed out on an epic, epoch-defining moment in music where rock regained its purity and soul in a short 36 minutes of Julian Casablanca's fuzzed-out shout.
But of course, that was then and this (naturally) is now. Music has evolved even more drastically over the past two years. This year alone Nada Surf released an undeniable ber-pop masterpiece, Broken Social Scene somehow mixed punk energy with shoegazer melodies, and Cat Power has renewed my faith in confessional heartbreak.
So basically when the date for its release finally hit the month-away mark, I started to wonder if I even needed Room on Fire. Certainly it couldn't compare. Certainly it couldn't change my conceptions the way its predecessor did.
But just because I felt I didn't need it doesn't mean by a long shot that I didn't want it. Timing might be paramount, but a great album is timeless. Once again let my expectations fly towards infinity and prepared myself for its arrival.
When I finally got my copy I realized that I could take two cognitive paths to "review" (defined as "point out every fault I can possibly find") the album: compare it to Is This It's absolute perfection or take it as it came-as simply another exceptional rock album.
Going down the hyper-critical, perfectionist route first, several shortcomings immediately became apparent. The album is not nearly as cohesive as Is This It. It's not imbued with that same singular energy and purpose. Is This It is full of pent-up aggression just waiting to explode. When "Take It or Leave It," the album's closer, finally hits, you are forced to face that ultimatum and either convulse in a joyous, possessed carnage or rip the cords out of the CD player in total lunacy.
Room on Fire contains no unstoppable momentum, no sonic boom in waiting. Instead, it sits in a groove and waits for you to ignore it just to shake you up the moment Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond's guitars hit your ears again.
Another notable down-note is the somewhat tacky 80s influence throughout, especially on "The End Has No End." The track begins with a metal-style dirge only to settle into-yes, no joke-a cheese-ball new wave melody where Julian sings about getting repressed by the government. Fear sets in: holy hell, not the Strokes too! I knew they had a penchant for Duran Duran, but for God's sake no one in their right mind would emulate them.
Then (oh salvation!) Nikolai's bass launches in and Julian goes absolute bonkers, screaming over a melee reminiscent of "Hard to Explain." In about 30 seconds the song goes from the worse thing Julian's ever written to absolute brilliance.
The lyrics don't contain that same magic throughout either. At one point in "Between Love and Hate," Julian sings "thinking 'bout the high school dance/ worried about the finals." Are the finals really on your mind, Julian? You're damn near in your mid-20s-what the hell are you talking about? Sorry for the nitpicking. Just remember, I am doing the best I can to be ultra-critical.
Its final flaw is its length. Like Is This It, Room on Fire marks in at 30 odd minutes. But where Is This It could be (and was) kept on perpetual repeat because of its continuity, Room on Fire feels a bit empty and not as taut. This realization, coupled with the feeling that Albert and Nick's constant two-guitar attack has disappeared in many of the songs, leaves me wondering where that unmistakable rock and roll voodoo energy ran went.
Of course, this is all paltry criticism because, in all honesty, the album's only real disservice is that it's not exactly Is This It. It certainly is damn near close.
The guitar lines crash and collide brilliantly on songs such as "Reptilia" just like on the Strokes debut. Nikolai Fraiture's impeccable bass playing is omnipresent yet again. Never ostentatious, Fraiture rolls out melodic bass notes ("Automatic Stop") that dance across the melodies, interjecting a chaotic mess of sound behind the suffocating guitar presence. There may be no perfect "Is This It" bass rift, but Fraiture effortlessly gets every bit of your body onto your bed to dance around in delirium.
Like the songs on Is This It, these tracks are so great en masse that you don't realize how astoundingly catchy they are until you hear them individually. As an album, they settle into a non-stop 30-minute air guitar party. The individual songs blow you away with their sing-a-long melodies and unrelenting force.
My friend Jay here in New Zealand summed up the album perfectly: "If Is This It was built for that energetic anxiety before going out, Room on Fire is the party groove." Of course, you'll never hear it in any public place on campus, which is an absolute travesty to be discussed another time.
The Strokes have accomplished the impossible with Room on Fire. Melding their signature sound on their sophomore release with something new (including a bit of soul on "Under Control" and a nice touch of reverb on "You Talk Way Too Much"), the Strokes have transcended any reasonable expectations. In the face of such greatness, the pop renaissance of 2003 be damned. All hail Strokes rock once again, and once and for all!