Is This It (RCA ’01) Rating: A
Cute, rich, young, and cocky, The Strokes became 2001’s most hyped band before the inevitable backlash came (i.e. “they’re overrated”). But let’s forget about all that and concentrate solely on the 36 minutes of music on Is This It, ok? Right off the bat I was happy to see the 36-minute running time, as this is a concise, filler free album, not a 36-minute album that’s padded out with 36 more minutes of rubbish like so many albums are these days. The band has all the right influences too (The Velvet Underground, Television, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, etc.), and they turn their technical limitations into a strength by keeping things simple. Basically, on Is This It The Strokes are a great garage band who create easy to play but tighly constructed and infectious songs that groove contagiously, especially on “The Modern Age” and “Hard To Explain.” “Someday” and “Last Nite” are other catchy and melodic songs that sound like instant classics, as The Strokes get back to rock n’ roll basics with star making attitudes, consistently stellar songwriting and energy, and even (gasp!) entertaining guitar solos. Sure, a couple of these songs might be less than essential, and some of them are a little samey sounding (“Someday” and “When It Started,” for example) due to the band’s limited range. But by and large The Strokes recycle rock’s past in gloriously entertaining fashion, and if they’re overrated at all it’s only because they’re rated very, very highly (#2 on the Village Voice’s 2001 year end Jop and Pazz critic poll).
Room On Fire (RCA ’03) Rating: A-
I don’t know what was sillier, the critics who claimed The Strokes to be “the saviors of rock n’ roll,” or the backlash that ensued once it became obvious that they weren’t. Of course, I’m referring to the furor over the band’s debut album, Is This It, which was merely a great rock n’ roll record that contained incredibly catchy and memorable songs but not much in the way of original ideas. Instead, The Strokes are prime recyclers, regurgitating the best bits from garage/punk bands past and molding them into a sound that is ultimately all their own. Julian Casablancas still sings with a deadpan cool that Lou Reed would kill for, but he mixes up his delivery a bit more this time out, upping the decibels and letting ‘er rip on more than one occasion. For their part, the rhythm section provides their customary steady beats (drummer Fabrizio Moretti) and throbbing basslines (bassist Nikolai Fraiture), while guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. still produce this wonderful ringing guitar sound. Oddly enough, the guitars on Room On Fire sometimes sound like synthesizers, as the album has more of a new wave ‘80s vibe than Is This It, which was retro ‘70s all the way.
As for the songwriting, which is the band’s biggest strength, I’d say that once again it’s consistently stellar. However, whereas Is This It was one of the few albums in recent years that I loved almost immediately, I’d say that the hooks aren’t as ready made this time out, but require a few listens to fully sink in. Yet sink in they will, especially “What Ever Happened?,” “Reptilia,” “12:51,” and “The End Has No End,” which are the obvious highlights on an album that’s full of them
Then again, the album isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, many of these songs start to sound alike after awhile, since even though this band is great at what they do, what they do is fairly limited. Of course, a lack of diversity also plagued the debut, whose blueprint this album closely follows. However, that album had the benefit of being first, and its songs were so catchy that nothing else really mattered. These songs are very catchy too, just not as catchy, and Casablancas’ vocals are sometimes buried in a mix that could be a bit crisper. Some might also find fault with the album’s scant 33-minute running time, but in this era of bloated albums I personally appreciate a short, filler-free album that can be easily listened to and enjoyed in a single sitting. Really, any complaints that I have about this album are minor, as it does exactly what I hoped it would in that it expands (if only slightly) on their debut while further reinforcing the band's strengths. The Strokes may not be rock n’ roll “saviors” of any sort, but based on Room On Fire, which peaked higher on most charts than Is This It, they figure to be a band with considerable staying power.
First Impressions Of Earth (RCA ’06) Rating: B+
Opinion seems to be divided on this one; some are touting the band's slightly more adventurous, expansive sound while others are lamenting its rougher, more abrasive tones. Really, this is no great departure either way, and I'm somewhere in the middle, feeling that while this is another very good Strokes album, it's clearly less good than Room On Fire, which itself was clearly less good than Is This It (notice a trend?). Still, even if each subsequent Strokes album seems to require a little more work to appreciate and is a little less loveable, songs such "You Only Live Once," "Razorblade," and "On The Other Side" are certainly easy enough to embrace and are instantly memorable (and singable). The main problem with the album is that 14 songs is about 3 too long; the album seems to drag on and on, and after the fact it's difficult to separate songs, variety never exactly being this band's stock in trade. They are trying, though; mellow songs such as "Ask Me Anything," "Killing Lies," and "Evening Sun" are certainly a far cry from comparative heavy hitters such as "Juicebox," "Vision Of Division," and "Fear Of Sleep," for example. And there are some great bits and surprises on the album. For example, where did that shockingly intense jam section come from at around the 1:50 mark of "Vision Of Division"? And that certainly is an interesting synth-like guitar solo on "Ize Of The World," isn’t it? A song such as "Heart In A Cage" shows that the Strokes still have that great rhythmic surge and overall tightness that marked them as special from the start, and "Razorblade" has the "classic Strokes sound" (i.e. ringing guitars, an appealing mid-tempo melody, hooky yet laid back vocals) down cold. Nobody does "laconic yet rocking" quite like The Strokes at their best, and they still have those pretty intermeshing or harmonized guitars, though as I mentioned before this album is at times much rougher around the edges than in the past. The hooks are a little harder to come by as well; for example, "15 Minutes" starts all mellow and pretty but when it eventually picks up steam the hooks recede as the pace picks up. That said, the hooks are there on most songs. For example, the hard charging up-tempo groove of "Electricityscape" is still very melodic, the syncopated beats/synths of "Red Light" are oddly infectious, and how can you not sing along to "On The Other Side?" As for the lyrics, the chorus to "Ask Me Anything" ("I've got nothing to say") is sadly truthful, but the way Casablancas sings it is still cool, as is the band itself.
Angles (RCA ’11) Rating: A-
After a five year layoff during which the band released some solo albums, The Strokes are back and in fine form on Angles. Against all odds too; after all, you don’t hear much about the other “rock is back!” bands like The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Vines these days, and supposedly the band scrapped their initial recording sessions for this album. Also, whereas previously singer Julian Casablancas was the primary songwriter and creative force in the band, this time the other four members (still Valensi, Hammond, Jr., Fraiture, and Moretti) created the music, after which Casablancas added his ideas and vocals to the music electronically from long distance. Needless to say, this is far from an ideal way to create an album, but based on the results I’d have to say that it worked this time, as the band still sounds fresh, energetic, and fun. They’re still not the most original band around, but rather than their old ‘70s “garage rock” influences they pillage more “new wave” bands like The Police and The Cars, among other acts, while still retaining the core Strokes attributes of hooky vocals (in addition to his detached vampiric croon Casablancas delivers more emotional outbursts as well), ringing guitar parts with some cool solos here and there, and tightly precise rhythms. Among the highlights are first single “Under Cover Of Darkness” and “Taken For A Fool,” perhaps the most Is This Is-like tracks, while “Two Kinds Of Happiness” sees the band both at their synth-poppiest and most rocking, with the band's exciting guitar work and propulsive rhythms in particular standing out. Also impressive is “Machu Picchu,” whose faux white reggae groove recalls The Police, “Games,” which provides groovy, New Order-y synth pop, and “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight,” a rare mellower, romantic track that of course has some louder parts too. On the whole, this is probably the band’s widest ranging and most eclectic/experimental album yet; for example, “You’re So Right” reminds me of Radiohead at their most jittery, while the other mellower track, “Call Me Back,” has strange experimental sections as well though in truth those don’t work all that well. Which only proves that The Strokes are still at their best being The Strokes, as regardless of their retro influences they still have their own instantly identifiable and catchy sound (witness the rowdy shout along "Gratisfaction"), and in addition to hitting listeners from all sorts of different angles (get it?) this album corrects the primary problem of First Impressions Of Earth by delivering a mere 10 songs that span a concise, filler-free ("Metabolism" is also quite good) 34 minutes. Of course, after a five year absence this may leave some fans feeling shortchanged and wanting more, but given that variety still isn't the band’s greatest strength I applaud their less is more strategy. The Strokes will likely never deliver another classic on the same level as the instantly loveable Is This It, but once again the band has proven that no, that wasn’t it, they’re still around and they’re still a fine band with a knack for creating easily likeable rock music.