Review Summary: You may ask "Is this it?", but it's definitely more than enough.
In the 1970's and 1980's, New York City was a hotbed for alternative and independent rock. In the 70's, punk and art rock bands fled to the crime riddled gutters of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, and made those wastelands their landscapes for some of the most classic work rock music has seen. The 1980's, an era led by the death of artistry and the compression of musician ability, was the era of New York Hardcore, with bands like Agnostic Front and Gorilla Biscuits lacing their urban rage into searingly short songs, that addressed the issues of society. CBGB's and L'Amours were the two meccas for fans, and as the music seemed to fade, so did they. Out of this same region comes The Strokes. Formed in the late 1990's, The Strokes are a group very much unlike these bands. They were from well off families, living in the ritziest sections of the now cleaned up borough of Manhattan. Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond met at a foreign boarding school, and after years of no contact, met again at the ideal time. They needed a guitarist, and Hammond played. Thus began the band.
After a series of demos and EP's, the band built upon influences of reggae, introduced by Julian's stepfather, and classic rock, to make a simplistic rock record that was well crafted. Their debut album "Is This It" is just that. It's a simplistic rock record through and through. There's the basic components here. Riffs, basslines, drums, and vocals. The keys to making a rock song. From the opening track "Is This It", with its almost spoken word like vocal delivery, the record is based on the cornerstone of minimalist rock. Not too much, but not too little, and just enough. Each song has a nice catchy riff, a nice steady and catchy drum rhythm, and the crooned vocals of Julian Casablancas settled nicely between . Although to many this sounds like monotony or even boredom, the formula works. There's a reason they once played Letterman four weeks in a row. The songs are to the point and simple, and easy to digest. No song is longer than just over 3 minutes, and in doing this, the record moves along nicely, giving the ear a nice pace to listen at. There are some bombastic punk influenced tracks though, such as "Last Night", "Hard To Explain" and the aptly titled "New York City Cops". But in between these loud and frenetic tracks are the almost somber tracks like, "Trying Your Luck", and the opener "Is This It", that balance the wild with the balladry of a band with its hand in different pots, and trying different things.
Sound wise, the influence of 70's garage rock, art rock, and punk rock is clearly evident, with the cues coming from many of the band's rock heroes. The recording of the album was done very much non-technologically, with the exception of some sound effects and some drum machine on "Hard To Explain", it's all staunchly organic. This was done intentionally, with emphasis on rawness and realness rather than production magic. Casablancas sang through a practice amp, and the instrumentation was left produced with a raw, natural sound, akin to The Stooges, Velvet Underground and MC5, that gives the vibe of "In your garage and stealing your beer". At the time "Is This It" was released, the new wave of indie rock bands that desired back to basics influenced work were growing, with bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes leading the pack of minimalist rock music who discarded the excesses of the 90's to dwindle it all down to what it needed to be. "Is This It" is not a simple record in a stupidity sort of way. It's simple in that the songs are built upon the basics of "Riff, bass, drums, vocals" and the digestion this creates makes them enjoyable.
"Is This It" is a very strong record for a debut album, and deserving of the accolades its received since its release. The motto of the album could be presented as "No Filler, All Realer", as no song is weaker than the rest, and the emphasis of realness and rawness is essential to the draw of the record as a return to the roots of rock. While many bands choose the magic of the production board over the magic of their own instruments, every so often a band comes along that can use what they have and make something great. And that's what "Is This It" is. A simple rock record you'll remember for a long time.