Is it VU? Is it TV? Is it Superband? Nope, it’s just the Strokes, for whom outsized — and musically misinformed — hype made media darlings of five rich kids arrogantly posing as bored young rock stars (naming your debut Is This It says it all, doesn’t it?) and then turned them into actual rock stars. The hubbub around the Oz-like New York quintet (singer Julian Casablancas, drummer Fab Moretti, guitarist Albert Hammond Junior, guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture)—who are nowhere near as significant as they have been made out to be or half as awful as the frenzy around them has led some to conclude—issued in a weird year (2002) of rampant commercial interest in suit-wearing bands playing herkyjerky guitar music under a mislabeled blanket of garage rock and a sudden plethora of trendy New York bands stirring up a storm of attention by copying Gang of 4 and Joy Division.
With only a slight, simple but memorable album to their credit (which, to be frank, is actually two songs and slight variations thereon), the Strokes got credit for all sorts of things that only confused the reality of what they actually accomplished. Did they reclaim punk swagger for New York City in its hour of despair? Have we learned to grow our own Eurotrash? Or are the Strokes simply proof that, in today’s hollow and overplowed culture, a pose stitched together from forbears and betters is more valuable than creative effort or substance? Are they the Strokes or the meta-Punks?
As so many before them have done, the Strokes scanned their record collections and stitched together a sound from the bits they liked. Thanks to the increasing brevity of the pop mart’s cultural memory, that effort elevated them to latter-day torchbearers rather than marginalized them as derivative Johnny-strum-lately acolytes. (It’s not as if the whole ’70s Bowery scene wasn’t equally in debt to the Velvet Underground and Stooges.) So in appraising and considering the Strokes apart from the reams of running dog gibberish that’s been written about them, it’s wise to ignore the trivial connections to Television (one descending guitar lick lifted from “Marquee Moon”), the Velvet Underground (a choppy downstrum long used by the late Sterling Morrison which gives rise to a largely unremarked-upon nod in the direction of the Buzzcocks), Iggy (whose “Lust for Life” beat gets taken out for a stroke in the peppy “Someday” and “Last Nite,” both of which explicitly copy Tom Petty’s “American Girl”), Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Dictators, Joe Jackson, blah blah blah. Obvious, doctrinaire, redundant — after a certain point, what difference does any of it make? Application of an education doesn’t make them teachers, it just underscores the fact that the Strokes don’t own the clothes they’re modeling at this fashion shoot.
Casablancas’ voice — treated electronically with a different effect on every single song — and the fizzle- out endings of his songs are more distinctive features here than any odd borrowing from the cool band canon. Fishing around the surface of David Johansen’s New York Dolls scribblings, his carefully composed lyrical disdain and confusion (“Barely Legal,” in which JC tosses off the phrase “don’t give a fuck” with impressive élan; “Is This It”; “Take It or Leave It”; “Hard to Explain”; “Last Nite,” which offers the album’s most cogent manifesto) has the weight of a feather boa; given the roiling and debauched wake in which they swim, these guys have a long way to go before any one is going to take anything they sing seriously.
Shortly after the album’s release, which came two weeks after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks, the band and its label suffered a disappointing (from the standpoint of rock imagery) if unsurprising case of cold sneakers and replaced “New York City Cops” (which actually sounds more like “New York City girls” and goes no further in its feckless assault on the men in blue than sneering “they ain’t too smart”) with the dippy “When It Started.” (Evidently, no one in the Strokes camp read the punk manual carefully enough to know that you’re supposed to add songs like that under such circumstances, not delete them!)
Where the Strokes truly excel is in their thoroughly self-conscious clarity of vision. Ultimately, Is This It is a dandy little 36-minute album of simple pop tunes with all the right moves and no real motion — a flashy ball-hog who looks good on the court, dazzles the opposition but can only sink free throws.
There’s a little less of Room on Fire, and that’s not just a measure of its 33-minute running time. Evidently unaffected by the surprising stylistic impact of their debut, the Strokes made no effort to keep up with their acolytes, and simply clung stubbornly to their downstroke blueprint, adding a soundalike second set of brisk missives from the glamorous VIP lounge of urban ennui. Other than the Cars-like gimmick of following the processed vocal melody on synthesizer (with handclaps) on the single “12:51,” there’s nothing about the quintet’s second album that audibly acknowledges the impact of its debut. It’s not uncommon (or inadvisable) for a band with a distinct sound to remain within its parameters for more than one album, but in doing so, the Strokes run the risk of getting lost in their own crowd.
On First Impressions of Earth, the Strokes both solidify their signature sound and add heavier material, tinged with hints of ’90s grunge. Producer David Kahne cuts away Casablancas’ vocal trickery, allowing his personality to become the focal point. When the songs are good, the results can be exhilarating (“You Only Live Once,” the Iggy-like swagger of “Heart in a Cage”), but the slighter compositional efforts are another story, as Casablancas pours on the bombast to equal the guitar roar. The results of that gambit are hollow fury (“Ize of the World,” “Fear of Sleep”). Bogged down in self-referential lyrics (“Everybody at the party, shouldn’t worry if I’m there” is just the most glaring example in the awkward “15 Minutes”), these sluggish tracks all but kill the album’s momentum.
Approximately twice the length of the previous albums, First Impressions of Earth suggests the Strokes have more on their minds than playing the role of classic New York punk pillagers. Unfortunately, attempts to abandon that formula offer little evidence that they can excel at anything else. A successful reconciliation between the glorious new wave romanticism of “Red Light” and their newly acquired artistic conceits would seem to be (at least) another album away.