The Strokes @ the Aragon Ballroom
J: First off, Voices hates stadium shows as a general rule. Arena shows and anything even remotely related to a cavernous venue teeming with obnoxious concert goers usually get the thumbs down as well. The Aragon is about as close to such a venue as one can get without actually being one. There are no designated seats or obstructed views, but you can get a hot dog with your rock n' roll and a Miller Lite shower before you leave. Truth be told, The Aragon bears a distinct resemblance to Medieval Times®, only without the purple drapes and chain mail. The similarity also extends to the crowd noise, which is more ideally suited to a jousting match than a concert. However, the Strokes, who played the Chicago venue this past Friday on their Wyckyd Sceptre tour, miraculously overcame every one of the venue's challenges. Not even a weak sound system could mask the Strokes melodic punch and newfound maturity.
W: What's more remarkable is how much the audience had to do with that: those self-same drunk, khaki-clad, obnoxious concert- goers knew every word to every single. They've developed a substantial fan base, but more importantly, it's a passionate fan base, one that's willing to get collectively sloshed on $5 beers and sing along. Which means they've reached midcult America, which means their second album is going to be huge, or at least bigger than Is This It.
J: The new songs showcased on this particular evening, which will likely comprise half of the new album, were similar in spirit to those found on Is This It, but the Strokes seem to be headed in a more pop direction. They haven't gone bubblegum or anything, but the new batch of songs are even more blatantly catchy. "Meet Me in the Bathroom," which was the first song written following the Is This It sessions, has developed into a perfect power-pop nugget. "The Way It Is," on the other hand, showed that the Strokes can still do muscle-bound punk with equal proficiency. "I Can't Win" and "You Talk Way Too Much" are reminiscent of "Barely Legal" in that they provide an excellent opportunity to highlight the strong rhythm section of Fraiture and Moretti. Even "Ze Newie," arguably the least successful of the new songs, gets some points for introducing a reggae element to the patented Strokes sound.
W: Fraiture and Moretti surprised me, but not nearly as much as Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, and above all Julian Casablancas. Is This It suggests a certain amount of musical talent, specifically in the interlocking guitars, but nothing that couldn't be accomplished with a sufficient amount of practice; that is to say, no innate soul or genius. Also, and maybe I'm just paranoid, but the album's decayed vocals implied that maybe Julian couldn't sing terribly well. None of this is true, as I discovered at the show; they're better musicians than their recorded output implies. Both guitarists can, in fact, solo like rock stars (if briefly), and Julian Casablancas can, in fact sing. Remarkably well, as it turns out. The production of Is This It, while working as a sneaky-smart underground aesthetic, hides his ability to wail. Between the wall-of-sound guitars and the dirt-pile-of-sound audience racket, I feared that he'd be lost and his mystique would be tarnished. Instead, he gave proof that he's the real thing. I'm curious to see if, on the next album, they stop running his vocals through a charcoal filter and let him become a rock god.
J: But even if The Strokes do revert to their grainy aesthetic when they enter the studio, at least they have proven that they're one band capable of earning the title of "greatest living rock band." They have the songs, the look, and, most importantly, the intensity that have distinguished the greats with each passing generation. Whether they actually want the job is up for debate, but if this particular performance is anything to go by, they may not have a choice in the matter for much longer.