ARTS

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October 23, 2003

Strokes: hot and bothered, but can't seal the deal

The Strokes could build a successful musical career off of their hype alone. Before their first album, Is This It, was even released, rock critics everywhere referred to them as the new Rolling Stones. Then, immediately after the album hit the stores, everyone proclaimed them "the saviors of rock 'n' roll." And now that their new album, Room On Fire, is due out in less than a week, their fans (and entertainment industry higher-ups) can't wait to get their hands on it.

How is it that these random boys from New York with messy hair have achieved so much in so little time? Perhaps it's because listeners are starved for simple, good rock, or maybe it's because their white belts and East Coast leisure-wear gave every fashion-clueless indie rocker a look to copy. Whatever the reason, the Strokes have blown their competitors—mainly the White Stripes—out of the water.

The question on everyone's mind is: will their new album live up to the hype? Judging from the songs they performed at their show at the Aragon on October 19, I say it will. The opening song, "Under Control," was promising, as were "Whatever Happened," "Reptilia," and "Between Love and Hate." Still, despite the much awaited new release, the concert was moved from the UIC Pavilion to the Aragon Ballroom, and it didn't even sell out. The attendance didn't lessen the experience, though. The amount of cheering, clapping, and whistling that preceded the Strokes' entrance and exit was impressive. It was evident that the few fans who made it to the North Side were excited for the performance, and their enthusiasm was contagious.

Opener Regina Spector performed solo with her keyboard and an army of lyrics and melodies. Her voice had a familiar ring to it, much like a smoky Fiona Apple combined with a young Tanya Donelly. She was an odd choice for an opener for a Strokes concert, because she played mostly piano ballads and sweet tunes, but her cheerful disposition and expression of gratitude to the Strokes were endearing.

Next up, Kings of Leon, a trio of brothers and a cousin from Tennessee, played an eclectic mixture of Southern rock with a twist of indie rock. The lead singer spent a lot of time adjusting his hair but was able to get some good guitar solos into the mixture of hard drums and heavily accented, rough wails. Their set was well received by the eager crowd.

The Strokes were greeted by immense applause when they arrived on stage, despite their inexplicably long set change. Lead singer Julian Casablanca's performance of Is This It material varied greatly. At the beginning of the concert, he was off to a good start—energetic and enthusiastic. Responding to the crowd's liveliness, Julian actually jumped off the stage at one point and screamed his lyrics out among the shouting fans. His vocals rivaled the album's in rawness and vigor, especially those in "Alone, Together" and "Hard to Explain." For me, the cake-taker was "NYC Cops," which Julian covered flawlessly, but also improved.

Sadly, near the middle of the show and almost until the end, Julian lost his vibrancy and hovered over the microphone lazily. The bandmates Fab, Albert, Nick, and Nikolai attempted to take over. With the exception of the smiles that ensued from Albert bouncing his hair around, they pretty much failed.

Julian finally sparked up and finished the set with excellent renditions of both "Soma" and "Take It or Leave It"; this remedied some of the lackluster performances in the middle of the show. The encore, consisting of "Barely Legal" and "Is This It," was redeeming but didn't rescue the band entirely.

Considering the overall jaunty feel of their album material, despite some melancholy lyrics, one would expect the concerts to reflect their buoyancy. Unfortunately, they seemed more self-conscious and inhibited than young and hip after the first couple of songs.

But it really wasn't as bad as it sounds. The new tracks were impressive and promising, the beginning of the show was enjoyable, and the crowd was top-notch. Regardless of the band's dwindling energy, the actual quality of the music they emitted remained intact. Maybe they're tired from maintaining New York hipster lives for so long, or maybe living up to the hype has taken its toll. Or maybe, just maybe, they're tired from writing such an amazing new album. If that's the case (and I can't wait to see), then I forgive them entirely.