Is This It
By: Eric Greenwood
Riding the wave of hyperbole surrounding the release of this album would do The Strokes a disservice, so I will try to avoid resorting to superlatives to describe their music (although, I"m sure a few will creep in"). The Strokes are a mass of contradictions: Wealthy, artsy, good-looking upper class white kids embracing the New York City underbelly as a musical schtick, who play the game better than the real bands that have been sweating it out in the clubs in search of that golden record deal for years. Signed off the strength of a demo, The Strokes barely had to work for their instant success, which practically ensures that a cloud of resentment will loom over them. I wouldn"t worry too much about them, though- they"re young and smart and fully aware that they"re a great band.
At first Is This It is nothing shocking to your adept and, perhaps, jaded musical ears. It"s simple garage/guitar rock inspired by the usual class of hipster pre-requisites like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Iggy Pop/The Stooges. I also hear a twinge of Jim Morrison in Julian Casablancas" unpredictable delivery but more on that later. Like any good recipe, it"s the amount of each ingredient that counts, and that"s the key to The Strokes" understated genius. Plenty of bands have hooks and good songs and retro-garage sounds, but none compares to The Strokes. They"ve tapped into something so truly extraordinary " and so simply – that you"d swear it were an accident. That theory goes out the window, though, when you listen to how naturally the band gels on pop gems like "Soma" and "The Modern Age."
The laid back nonchalance of the title track/opener barely prepares you for the immediacy, melody, and tension that The Strokes evoke with such unaffected passion on the rest of the album. Julian Casablancas mimes Lou Reed"s style well enough to deserve the comparison, but it"s not just an imitation- it"s an interpretation with many facets. Casablancas is golden lead-singer material. Breezy and bored one moment, he will explode without warning into fiery bursts of emotion that sound so impulsive and uncontrived that you can feel the tension like you did with Jim Morrison before he was too fat and boozed up to remember his lines.
There"s something primal and exciting about "The Modern Age", but it"s hard to put your finger on it. The guitars churn out simple chords, joyfully chugging along while Casablancas takes turns crooning with his arrogant inflection and pretending to ad-lib those poetic yet standoffish lyrics: "Leavin’ just in time/Stay there for a while/Rolling in the ocean/Trying to catch her eye/Work hard and say it’s easy/Do it just to please me/Tomorrow will be different/So I’ll pretend I’m leaving." Then "Soma" rolls out and just kills the notion that pop music can"t change your life anymore. Such a simple pop song yet so effective. The guitar melody jumps an octave and Casablancas joins it vocally- it"s an old trick but never has it sounded so casual and perfect.
On "Barely Legal" the band clips a beat from "Love Will Tear Us Apart", but it"s hardly a downer. The wiry guitars spray a jubilant melody while Casablancas waxes nostalgic: "They ordered me to make mistakes/Together again like the beginning/It all works somehow in the end/The things we did, the things you hide/And for the record, it’s between you and me." Summoning an altogether darker side for "Alone, Together", The Strokes wave the Television banner proudly. Beautiful, descending bass melodies cross fade into dirty, old school guitar solos and all the while Casablancas wreaks his inimitable vocal havoc. All of it is familiar territory musically, but The Strokes paint with such an unique brush that it sounds newer and fresher with every listen, especially when you hold it up to what"s happening elsewhere in the underground music scene.
Is This It is a party record. It"s a dance record. It"s a garage rock record. But first and foremost it"s a punk album both in spirit and sound, but not in the stereotypical "Sex Pistols" sense. You"ll turn it up as loud as it goes and sing along. You"ll think about it and hum the tunes to yourself when you"re at work or can"t listen to it. You"ll scream along to "Take It Or Leave It"- in front of the mirror even, and you"ll look forward to the next time you get to hear it again. These are the tell-tale signs that you’re listening to a great album. The hype may be overwhelming- even for a band as confident and able as The Strokes, but the music rises to the occasion and you won"t be able to control yourself when you"re under its spell.