The Strokes – Is This It

The Strokes
Is This It

The cover art of the new, much-hyped Strokes album is pulling me in two directions, and quite frankly, I’m a bit torn. On one hand, I’ve always been sort of partial to celestial imagery, and the starts and swirling lines on this album art are undeniably cool. To make things better, the color scheme is nearly perfect, and everything adds up to some of the coolest cover art I’ve seen in quite some time. For a band like, say, Hum, this would be some of the coolest cover art ever, bar none. Unfortunately, the album cover – and the imagery it evokes – has absolutely nothing to do with the music The Strokes have pressed into the plastic here. The cover art turns your attention towards the heavens, and then in a maneuver that feels something like whiplash, the music snaps your neck down and grinds your eyes into the dirt and grit of city streets, shitty apartments and cracks in the sidewalk.

Beginning of obligatory paragraph explaining the hype behind the Strokes:

If you haven’t at least heard of the Strokes by now, you probably suck. The hype surrounding the band reached ridiculous/absurd levels months ago, when the English press got a hold of their first EP, The Modern Age. If you believe the critics in England (Given their track record, you shouldn’t. Please see Coldplay.), then the Strokes are back to save the universe: they’ve been hailed as the next Velvet Underground, rock’s saviors, and a whole bunch of other ludicrous claims that they could not possibly live up to. And not surprisingly, they don’t. That’s ok, however, simply because the Strokes have released an album with 11 tracks of dirty NYC pop that sounds tough, cocky, and somehow relevant.

The production on this album sort of sounds the way your hands feel after you’ve fallen on the pavement and scraped up your hands. In other words, this stuff stings in a very unavoidable way. All of their comparisons to the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and Television probably have a whole lot more to do with their lo-fi production quality then anything else. That being said, let me make the same comparison that every other record reviewer has made: lead singer Julian Casablancas (even their names sound like New York) really does sort of sound like a young Lou Reed, though his lyrics are a bit more realistic than Reed’s magnificent poetry. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. generally keep their guitars minimal too. The distortion sounds paper-thin in that 70’s sort of way, and most of the time the guitars never move past a rhythmic buzz, though they do let the occasional solo rip through the mix. With the guitars turned up only halfway, the rhythm section really has a chance to burn, and on tracks like “Hard to Explain” and the title track, they do.

How about the songs? They’re catchy in an offhand sort of way. You probably won’t remember much about them after your first listen, but give them a couple of chances, and they’re as addictive as the cigarettes that this record reeks of. Tracks like the sing-song “Is This It” and the frustrated “Last Nite” sort of sound like what Billy Joel (another shining icon of all that is New York) might if he had picked up an electric guitar instead of sat down at a piano – they have that same believability, and quite frankly, same tunefulness. On “Someday” the Strokes play with bright chords an urgent chorus that tugs at you. “The Modern Age” sounds discordant until the chorus hits and sweeps you away like the rain cleansing a clogged sewer grate. The most glorious moment on the album comes during “Hard to Explain” where Casablancas rips through a big chorus with a relentless burst of melody, all the while the buzz from the guitars swirling up all around him, threatening to drown him in a sea of buzz and broken speakers. He comes out sounding droll as ever, and still somehow courageous.

The amazing thing about this record is that there’s really nothing new or inventive about this album at all. The most impressive feat is the Strokes’ adherence to their own set or rules: buzzed guitars, bopping bass, and that hipster voice. Nothing else. The first few listens may find you waiting for that big, obvious chorus, the shredder guitar solo, or maybe even just a big drum roll. The magic of the Strokes is that they never give in to those temptations – they’re retro and derivative right to the bitter end. Let’s just hope their tape hiss never eats them alive.