The music industry has spent much of the last few months deafened by the buzz behind The Strokes, the latest darlings of the indie rock scene. The band became the target of hipster backlash even before their debut album “Is This It” was released in America. So now comes the inevitable moment of truth: does the band’s music live up to the nauseating hype that surrounds it?
The members of The Strokes, all from New York City prep schools, formed the band in 1999. In less than two years they were playing New York’s most prestigious clubs and were the subject of a heated record company bidding war, all based solely on word-of-mouth and a three-song demo. All this led industry insiders to declare The Strokes to be the musical second coming of Christ.
Yet despite the cries of glee from critics far and wide, one simple fact remains: The Strokes are not that great. Though the group is a breath of fresh air at a time when rap-rock hybrids and teen pop rule the airways, they offer nothing that the Velvet Underground didn’t already do twenty-five years ago much better. This lack of originality is not a fatal flaw, but other dimensions fail to compensate.
The Strokes are quintessential New York, new-wave punk; one can almost feel the heat rising from the sidewalk vents and smell the sweat inside CBGBs. The band adopts their predecessors’ inclination for conciseness: collectively, the eleven tracks on “Is This It” clock in at just over thirty minutes, each a self-contained blast of attitude and detached coolness. The songs contain passion, but no emotion; imagine a very early U2 if Bono hadn’t cared about anything.
At first listen, The Strokes’ low-fidelity sound is enticing. This is due mainly to the band’s impressive knack for arrangement. Each musician’s part could be played by a novice, but the sum is far greater than the primitive parts.
The songs on “Is This It” all boast this simple magic. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. compliment each other well, with one laying the framework while the other is free to accent the off beats. On top of this is Nikolai Fraiture’s bass playing, which adds a new, if somewhat hidden, level to the Strokes’ songs.
The band also has a gift for melody, but unfortunately takes it for granted. The band can write a great tune, but that tune just seems to be repeated eleven times on “Is This It.” While this strategy worked for pioneers like The Ramones, it’s somehow just repetitive when coming from The Strokes.
The driving force behind the redundancy is singer/lyricist Julian Casablancas. The annoyingness of his trite lyrics and tendency to begin lines by interjecting “Oh” is matched only by the faux-punk sneer in his voice. Trying his best to sound like Iggy Pop, Casablancas ends up only cheapening the band’s music.
All this is not to say that “Is This It” is without merit. When considered individually, many of the songs are actually quite listenable. The album’s title track is a great minimalist pop song reminiscent of “The Bends”-era Radiohead. The same for “Someday,” which borrows the melody from David Bowie’s “Modern Love” to create an optimistic look back at the fun and innocence of young love.
One of the most intriguing parts of “Is This It” is the story behind what is not on the album. Originally, track nine was slated to be “New York City Cops,” a song built around a chorus that claims, “New York City cops/They ain’t too smart.” However, in respect for the victims of the tragedies of September 11, the album was delayed so the band could record a new song, “When It Started,” to take its place.
Though certainly a thoughtful and laudable move, the decision deprives the band’s stateside fans of one of their best songs. The energetic tune is the Strokes at their best: loud, jangly guitars that drive the melody along to its explosive chorus and a youthful cynicism that is surpassed only by youthful energy. In retrospect, the Strokes faced a tough choice to which there is no correct way to act. The line between unnecessary censorship of art and unintended insensitivity is thin, so one can only hope that the song will appear on a future release.
The Strokes stand as a testament to the power of hype, to how brooding good looks and attitude can help mask a lack of ability. Does the band have the potential to create great music? Sure. But so far they have not come close to fully realizing it.
Once the music world has moved onto the “next big thing,” who knows if The Strokes will have the staying power to keep on touring and recording? All we can do now is consider the present, and after all the buzz fades, “Is This It” leaves the reader asking himself that very question.