Imagine for me if you will a certain scenario. The scenario I'm envisioning is a subterranean Avenue A Manhattan basement in New York City. The room is blue with cigarette smoke, the lights too dim to adequately illuminate the entire flat. On the door, there are pictures of women in scandalous clothing and questionable positions to serve as something similar to inspiration. This is where The Strokes do business. Good old New York is a bitch to live in if you're a struggling artist. Prices of apartments are way too high to support an uncertain income and usually no income at all. That's why in the last 5 years or so, only three bands have really made it big coming out of America's dirtiest city. Freak rockers The Yeah Yeah Yeah's, Gloomy-Pop Interpol, and Rich Kid 70's Party band extraordinaire, The Strokes. In essence, all three collectively represent New York's music scene, minus 50 Cent and God knows whoever else can write a rhyme to the word fo-shizzle. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs represent the off-balance indie crowd, Interpol: your faux-goth crowd (because let's face it, in New York, no one's actually goth), and The Strokes are your trendy ol' "In" band. They basically kick started the skinny tie, white belt fashion of the day, and chances are they are your girlfriend's secret crush. Jealousy runs high when talking about the Strokes. Each member of the quintet attended private school, and lead singer Julian Casablancas is the son of a major NYC fashion mogul. And the worst thing about them is their hype. The Strokes were supposed to save New York and be the best band ever, blah blah blah. NME can be such a bitch. But unlike most rich kids in bands, and unlike most overly hyped bands, The Strokes were actually pretty good. In 2000, they were handing out flyers and demos to uninterested Weezer fans. In 2001, they dropped their debut, Is This It?
, and started catfights at concerts over who got to touch them.
The thing with Is This It?
and the overall Strokes sound is that it's almost too hip to be in. I mean what else could be trendier than a retro band with a retro look? The Strokes hype in 2001 was almost scary, a thing that turned a lot of hipsters off immediately. Nothing can be great if so many people listen to it obsessively. But The Strokes had a knack for finding the ears of these scoffers and caught their eyes too (Their video for Last Nite
might as well have been a color outtake of The Ed Sullivan Show). Soon it became impossible to deny the simple decadent charm The Strokes had. Singing up-tempo but mellow songs about girls has always gotten bands popular, but the way they seemed to have an element of party-boy anthem sneak into songs is what made Is This It?
such a catch and was probably the cause of all the hype in the first place. Everyone loves a rebel. Casablancas's knack for witty one-liners and come-hither lyrics give off that joie de vivre so many imitators strive for but can't quite hit. On Barely Legal
, the song kicks off with "I didn't take no shortcuts, I spent the money I saved up. Oh, momma I'm running out of luck. Just like my sister: don't give a ***," and rounds out with "I just wanna misbehave, I just wanna be your slave." Here are your new poster boys for middle finger waving fun, everybody. These guys have a clue of how to bring the party, and the drunk swagger of Casablancas sort of gives off how they bring it. The frontman of The Strokes, at least on Is This It?
, is an oddity, for instead of slick singing, throughout the album the production makes him sound like he's singing through a PA system. During songs like Take It Or Leave It
, Casablancas sounds like he's not fully in the room where's he's talking, as though the effects of the alcohol he's probably already consumed begin to take it's effect on his speech. When he insists "Leave me alone, I'm in control, I'm in control...", it's safe to say that yes, he has had one to many Jack Daniel's. But hey, it's all in the name of fun.
But while Julian Casablancas carries himself like an almost sober Pete Doherty, the band behind him works as a four man wrecking crew, bringing the pain and pleasure to whatever Casablancas says. The dual slither between guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi is top-notch, and at times frighteningly cool. They also work in different tempos and feels at the same level of virtuosity. Alone Together
contains a stylish hiss of a riff, as if the boys were in a dark corner of a basement party (to shamelessly quote Beyonce) sipping their drinks, waiting for the next girl to get. That might be giving the boys too much credit, but the way they handle their guitars is masterful. On the very track before it, Someday
, you have a laid back waning-summer lead guitar part, as if the guys just actually contemplated life. Yikes. It's a telepathic connection the two share that leads to their killer solos and interludes, as well as their plays off each other. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture keeps the bass lines pulsating as drummer Fab Moretti plays fast a lot, and their work in the rhythm section are nearly as good as the melodious guitars. Because of a relentless tempo Is This It?
carries with it, the albums clocks in at barely 30 minutes, but it's a furious half hour. The band beats through all their songs with a spicy intensity, using classic pop hooks and Beach Boy-esque guitars to make the album sound like a blend between Thin Lizzy and old school Beatles. Oddly, the bands' only slower track is the opener, the title track. Casablancas groggily sings "Can't you see I'm trying? I don't even like it," over Fraiture's stutter stepping bass line that serves as your wake up call to The Strokes. And The Strokes don't rock so well in the morning. Still, the title track provides an introduction of sorts to The Strokes, as if the song is the morning after the furious partying that Is This It?
(the album) is. And The Strokes know how to party old school.
The Strokes sound throughout Is This It?
is like an updated 70's classic rock band. You can hear Casablancas do his best Isley Brothers "Shout" imitation on The Modern Age
where he sings "Don't want you here right now, Let Me Go. WOOO! Darling let me g-g-g-g-g-g-go." Casablancas knows how to tweak the origins of rock to be so modern they sound cutting edge. The old fashioned barn-burner Last Nite
runs like anything off "Please Please Me", and requires the dancing methods found in the climactic scene of "Grease". Pretty kinky for an indie band. Then The Strokes one-up themselves with the very next song, a trick they pull off several times on the album. Hard To Explain
listens like a washed up A-Ha song, except altered to be exceedingly cool. Using 80's-ish synths and guitars, Hard To Explain
finds Casablancas pleading with a girl to take him, but the chorus pulsates with style as he deadpans "Raised in Carolina: I'm not like that". Casablancas's vocals during the album are intriguing as he seems to go from a drunken barstool monologue to a frightening howl in about 3 seconds, all the while he sounds like he's singing to you from the phone. Initially, The Strokes hired former Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to tackle Is This It
, so that the Strokes would sound off-center, like Radiohead did when Godrich worked his hands on "Karma Police". The arrangement didn't work out, but you can see how determined The Strokes were to not have Casablancas's voice sound clean at all. That gruff singing, when accompanied with the right instrumentation, makes The Strokes sound as fresh and cutting-edge as they ever would. Of course, they're still really just ripping off the old school rock gods.
Unfortunately, Is This It?
is not perfect. Casablancas's distorted words and at times senseless lyrics ("Why won't you wear your new trench coat?") can get exhausting at times. Songs seem to blend together, and few truly memorable tracks are produced, just a bunch of real good ones. The singles off Is This It?
are all instantly recognizable, but the rest either are all very similar, or annoyingly catchy. Soma
will get caught in your head, what with it's joyfully jumping guitar intro. The only problem is you can't get it out and it's not that great a song in the first place. To the diehard Strokes fan, this may be charming, but to the average person, the similarities and furious break less tempo the album has can be a hassle to tackle in one sitting. The typical complaint is that the instrumentation gets too invasive, but I find that complaint groundless, at least on Is This It?
. Hammond and Valensi are masters at their craft, and Fraiture is one of the better bassists within the genre. And since Casablancas really isn't saying anything worth listening to, you have to admire the way the 4 guys with instruments you have to buy work together to make some of the (almost annoyingly) catchiest songs that modern bands have produced. Is This It?
contains some replay value, if you really want to go in depth with Casablancas's lyrics, but should you pop it in now and then, the best thing to do would be to watch how the band gets their turn between choruses and verse 2's. Hammond's soloing on Last Nite
is definitely worth a second listen, especially if your hipster band wants to do a cover of the song and you want to play the solo. The flaws here are minor, but ever so detrimental if this album wanted to be a classic.
So the overall question is: should you buy this? Hell, you could do a lot worse for 10 bucks. The Strokes, while their latter performances have been greatly overrated, did start out with a slick debut. Is This It?
, before Room On Fire
replicated it, was a gem rarely found in the modern music world. Sure, The Strokes exceedingly hipster style and party-boy mentality is tiring, but then again, every band's style is tiring when taking it in extremes. But when you're in the mood to drink and have fun, it'd be a safe bet to say The Strokes are your music of choice. Is This It?
is a decadent album, and it finds the band kicking ass first and taking names later, and Julian Casablancas' persona is that of the ringleader of the 4 quiet men behind him. Though the production on Casablancas's voice is too distorted, unlike the slickly handled First Impressions Of Earth
, Is This It?
is arguably The Strokes best album, their Tour De Force if you will. With all the hype surrounding the band, it's amazing they almost lived up to it. So many bands have gone down that fiery path, like the Arctic Monkeys, and few have succeeded. If you want an introduction to The Strokes, my suggestion would be start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start, to quote Sound Of Music. God I hate that movie...
The Modern Age
Hard To Explain
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