After pressing play on the new Strokes album “Room on Fire,” I thought, “Is this it?” Not “Is this ‘Is This It?,'” mind you, but “Is this it?” 34 odd minutes later I realized — this — is — IT! Just what exactly “it” is or what it “is” is up to you, really, but I’ll tell you “this”: “this” “is” the album Radiohead wishes “it” could have made — a colossal album that straddles the rusty razor’s edge between fragile art and the corrosive, explosive, eversive and downright muddy waters of turbulent guitar noise.
Obsessive fans who adored the orgasmic caramel hooks of the first album may be turned off by the apparent lack of superficial hooks in this one, but they are there. Underneath the clamor lie some blustery guitar duels that seem so wrong but feel so, so right. When I listen to the last three Radiohead albums for the hooks that Thom Yorke swears are there, I always think that maybe the melodies really just aren’t there, or that maybe I’m just not aware. Nope. I just don’t care (yes, that’s from “Heroin” — so kill me). Those obsconded Radiohead hooks never fail to bore me, but the Strokes’, especially here, never cease to amaze me. There are countermelodies within their songs, a la the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded,” that sometimes are buried so far into the mix that finding them is like peeling back the skin on an ugly brown scab and finding fresh new pink skin underneath. Disgusting analogies aside, the Strokes know what they’re doing, and succeed overwhelmingly.
This comes as no surprise, considering how much the band members have improved across the board. Rhythm has never been a problem for guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., so he keeps flailing away brilliantly with Nikolai Fraiture’s bass leading the way. But Nick Valensi’s solos no longer seem as constricted as they did on “Is This It?,” and both he and Hammond pull out some incredibly vicious howls of feedback that could really open up the band’s meticulous live shows into some truly harrowing affairs. Valensi still generates some stunningly gorgeous strings of sound on the ballads, not to mention a new guitar-synth sound straight outta 1983. Perhaps the most delightfully surprising revelation of the album is drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s complete rhythmic infallibility: this guy could make a metronome blush. He takes Joy Division’s whip-crack sparsity and removes the echo. Then he adds Moe Tucker’s merciless tenacity with such a watertight precision that it could make Kraftwerk prematurely ejaculate for the first time since — well, ever, I guess — those Germans could breathe rhythmically for four hours during a Sting-esque sexcapade. The only time I would pay money to hear a drum solo would be if Moretti and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche had a drum-off, seeing as they are now the two most inventive drummers around today.
Then there’s Julian Casablancas, whose resolute monotone actually disappears now and then on this album. Although he still retains his Lou Reed stoicism on a few songs, more than once he wails like a pissed-off Iggy Pop (as if there’s any other kind). And, I swear to God, he’s written the most Blondie song Blondie never recorded with “Between Love and Hate,” along with the band’s most moving, grooving ballad ever, “Under Control.” I’ll be damned — it turns out the Strokes can shimmy — if they want to. Casablancas has also merged his old boyish confusion/naivete/anguish with some morbid, hilarious sarcasm NYC-style. “I’m not your friend/I never was,” he screams in “Automatic Stop,” before dropping this nugget — “She wanted him, but he wanted me.” Just like Sister Ray said.
When was the last time you heard the ugliest songs ever recorded right alongside the most beautiful ballads? Hmm — there’s the VU’s “White Light/White Heat” with the heavenly “Here She Comes Now” followed by the hellish “I Heard Her Call My Name.” And what else? Well, now there’s “Under Control” sandwiched between “The End Has No End” and “Meet Me in the Bathroom.” How lovely.
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