Hype be damned

By Jon Garrett

There have been many toasts and fond remembrances to mark the 10th anniversary of Nevermind’s release. Critics around the globe have rightly celebrated the group’s groundbreaking contributions to rock. But very few have dared to probe the dark side of Nirvana’s legacy. Sure, they made punk commercially viable and gave birth to the alternative radio format, but look at how quickly their revolution crumbled. Alternative radio has decayed into a tuneless, nu metal sludge. Turn on any supposedly “alternative” station today and you’ll hear the same thing: downtuned guitars, bellowing vocals, and self-absorbed lyrics. Nirvana’s impact has been perverted beyond recognition. Major labels haven’t fared much better, signing any band with a misspelled name, or featuring the words ‘God’ or ‘mud.’

In short, the pendulum has swung back to where it started, back to where it was before Nirvana broke — only instead of hair metal, we have a bunch of self-obsessed losers whining over processed guitars. Just as it was in early ’91, the mainstream is stuck in a rote paradigm.

And here’s the band that could kick the pendulum back in the opposite direction. The spark that could light a fire under the collective ass of aspiring mainstream rock bands. The band is The Strokes. They’re young. They’re talented. They’re on RCA Records. And, more importantly, they remind you that there was a time not so long ago when rock wasn’t synonymous with moping, when listening was actually a fun and life-affirming experience.

Contrary to what it may seem, The Strokes were not conceived overnight, even if they’ve enjoyed a fantastically rapid ascendance. Since 1999, they’ve played small club gigs in their native New York City to little notice. In fact, there was no press or fanfare to speak of until Geoff Travis, the head of the U.K.-based Rough Trade Records, decided to release their three-song demo this past January as it arrived on his desk. No requested changes, not even so much as a remix. Since then, these five oxy-faced young men have been plastered on the cover of the New Music Express (the closest thing to a musical bible in Britain) twice in one summer, been featured in Rolling Stone, and endured a furious bidding war for distribution rights in the States, eventually won by RCA Records. Naturally, as with any swell of hype, the backlash has been swift and merciless, with many journalists claiming that the band has done nothing more than blatantly rip off their influences, namely the Velvet Underground, Television, and The Ramones. While the critics may have a point, it’s hard to argue with a band that delivers their songs with such furor and panache. And even harder when the songs are as insanely catchy and clever as all 11 that comprise their debut are.

This is rock ‘n roll in its most primal and f**k-you form. Thirty-six minutes of adrenaline-rushed glory, delivered with an unmistakable New York City swagger. From the opening chugs of “The Modern Age” to the mow-em-down closer of “Take It or Leave It,” Is This It is pure gold. It certainly helps that these songs were written over the course of two years, a luxury most established bands simply don’t have as they’re rushed from the tour bus to the studio. But probably more essential to the quality of the final product is that The Strokes have applied minimal gloss and spent even less time fussing over the details. The LP was recorded in 30 days flat and, as lead singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas has emphasized was his intent, it plays like vinyl, like something you found in the cobwebbed bin of your favorite used record store. In other words, like all truly great albums, it sounds like a brilliant accident, even though deep down you damn well know better.

Perhaps not since Nevermind has there been a rock album as loaded with potential singles. Any one of these 11 songs could break big on the airwaves. (Well, maybe the title track would have a tough time getting radio play, but only because it barely eclipses the two-minute mark.) “The Modern Age,” the single that broke them in Britain, barrels through the speakers with enough force to wake the neighbors and the corpses they’ve got buried in their basement. It’s the most obvious choice for radio consumption over here, but making an equally as strong a case is the ramshackle new wave of “Hard to Explain.” And let’s not forget “Take It or Leave It,” in which Casablancas hacks up his vocal chords to punctuate the album. But really any one of the songs would do nicely on the FM dial. Looks like they have some tough decisions ahead of them. (At press time, The Strokes had chosen “Last Night” as their first worldwide single. And the video for it, which is a simple live performance of the song, is due to be added to MTV and MTV2 playlists within the next couple of weeks.)

Lyrically, Casablancas is about as good as they come; intelligent without being pretentious. There are slick turns of phrase all over the album that perfectly capture the exuberance and alienation of youth, from the panting chorus of the aforementioned “Hard to Explain,” where he utters the line, “I say the right thing but act the wrong way” to the jilted lover’s refrain of “Your promises, they break before they’re made” from “Someday.” Along the way, he proves that there is a happy middle ground between the oversimplified directness of Cobain and the more obtuse, jumbled ramblings of Travis Morrison (of The Dismemberment Plan). Casablancas never drops the ball either, delivering each line to devastating effect: saturated with anger, love, and meaning without ever belaboring his point.

When it comes right down to it, I have only one bone to pick. I wonder whether The Strokes will come in time to regret the production values on Is This It. Although I have grown to love its grainy sheen, I have to admit that the raw sound of the album threw me initially. And I fear that it may be too muddy for mainstream acceptance. Even Nevermind benefited from an expensive studio soundboard and the guiding hand of Butch Vig. I have a feeling many of the RCA suits are sweating the same issue, wondering whether America is ready for straight-from-the-garage sound. I imagine if it were up to them, the execs would have forced The Strokes to adhere to their protocol and hire one of their big guns. But since they have total artistic control (one of the conditions of their contract with RCA), The Strokes decided to go with the man who produced, mixed, and engineered their EP, the virtual unknown Gordon Raphael. Simple as that. Whether that proves to be a wise move, only time will tell.

Some of the group’s detractors (and there are many) will say that The Strokes are no better than the sum of their pilfered parts. But even if they are steeped in a familiar tradition, The Strokes distinguish themselves with sheer passion and vigor. Each song is played as if it were their last, as though they’ve put their lives on the line with each note. And in a sense, they have. For two years, these five friends have dismantled entire songs, reassembled them, and recombined fragments all in the pursuit of perfection. They’re not quite there yet, but if they were any closer, it wouldn’t be rock n’ roll.