The Strokes were at the forefront of the retro garage rock renaissance that was recently sweeping the music world; granted they harbored artistic ambitions that transcended mere guitar-driven nostalgia, and have thus been compared to classic avant-garde acts like the Velvet Underground, but the fact of the matter is that the Strokes lack the intelligence, depth and innovation that characterized Reed, Cale and company, at best constituting a contemporary, watered-down version of the experimental icons.
Another significant disparity between Julian Casablancas' ensemble and the legendary Velvets is the fact that the latter were a highly daring rock outfit; the Strokes, on the other hand, are a comparatively conservative band, taking few notable risks and primarily producing safe, same-sounding and studio-polished rock and roll fare with little that could offend or repel a more casual listener.
What this means is that the Strokes are fundamentally a basic garage rock group, seldom betraying any signs of progressing beyond this status. In fact, the modicum of artiness that the band manage to exhibit stem more from their self-awareness of their retro garage rock status as opposed to anything more complex or creative.
Of course there's nothing wrong with being a straightforward garage rock band provided you have an aptitude for the genre, and while hardly the saviors of seventies-style guitar rock the Strokes do indeed possess some ability in this department.
Several tracks on Is This It sport solid riffs and the occasional catchy vocal melody. By and large, though, the band tends to coast on their retro vibe, with a paucity of compelling tunes and hooks. Many of the riffs are simply too generic or primitive, and while Casablancas cleverly integrates some pop elements into his songwriting he's hardly a master of the almighty hook.
That said, there are definitely some worthy offerings presented here. Barely Legal and Alone, Together are entertaining if familiar standard rockers, while Hard To Explain is one of the few numbers that dares to break the retro mold and provide a more fulfilling musical experience.
The Modern Age is competent but overrated, Last Nite is formulaic and derivative but still somewhat enjoyable, and Take It Or Leave It features some interesting vocalization from Casablancas.
Nothing on the album is outright offensive, but Is This It is simply the victim of far too much hype; it's a perfectly competent, moderately enjoyable experience, but it invariably fails to live up to the gargantuan buzz surrounding its release. The Strokes are not the saviors of rock; on the contrary, they're capable of little more than regurgitating seventies garage rock clichés, and fortunately the band is blessed with the luck that even after all of this time many of those leftover ideas still work, especially when contrasted against the customary mainstream drivel that pollutes rock and roll in the new millennium.
Much has been made over the fact that the group is comprised of young, affluent and well educated musicians, but this should come as no surprise; who better to examine the work of the generation that preceded them, searching for ideas amongst the output of their betters? Having determined what succeeded in the past the group was put in the perfect position to offer something akin to a seventies revival, a self-manufactured ensemble that thrives on both nostalgia for their older listeners and something seemingly fresh for their younger audience.
Thus Is This It is indeed entertaining; even when the melodies fail there's something inherently alluring about the album's retro atmosphere. All the same, it's far from a great album, and in the long run there's little to differentiate it from the armada of me-too clones that they inadvertently spawned. For quite some time there was a vacuum of contemporary rock acts embracing seventies garage rock, but sadly a few too many groups arose to fill that vacancy, resulting in yet another over-saturated fad to dilute interest in what could potentially have been an entertaining niche area.
The Strokes' sophomore effort, Room On Fire, is widely regarded as a vastly inferior rehash of the band's debut; while I won't debate the CD's blatant resemblance to its predecessor, I would dispute the widespread assertion that the album suffers from a drop-off in the songwriting department when compared to the original. I derive just as much enjoyment from Room On Fire as I do from Is This It which, despite both albums' flaws, is indeed a considerable amount.
By this point the Strokes had largely established their own sound; while this sound is admittedly little more than a confluence of derivative elements liberally 'borrowed' from the band's influences, it still goes a long way toward differentiating the group from the myriad trend-hoppers who attempted to steal their thunder.
Another new development that's commonly attributed to Room On Fire is the subtle injection of new wave elements into the mix; 'new wave,' however, is such a nebulous term that it's difficult to identify precisely what aspects of the album's sound critics are applying it to, amounting to more of a vague, faintly perceptible undercurrent than a pivotal component of the album's identity. It's true that synths are more prevalent on Room On Fire than Is This It, but that alone hardly constitutes a valid case for projecting that already long dead sub-genre onto the band.
Thus regardless of any half-audible traces of new wave, Room On Fire is ultimately the retread it's commonly portrayed as. While this can be perceived as a liability, the fact of the matter is that the Strokes operate in a genre where true progression is scarce and, in the end, largely extraneous. There have certainly been garage rock groups who've evolved into far more ambitious, artistic entities (like the Kinks, for example), but while confining one's work to basic guitar driven numbers there's little room for artistic expansion and intellectual maturation.
As tends to be the case, this leaves the caliber of the songwriting as the main issue, and I'm simply mystified as to why Room On Fire is vilified by fans and excoriated by critics in this regard whereas the comparably flawed Is This It was met with effusive praise from listeners and a highly laudatory reception from industry insiders.
The songwriting on Room On Fire is every bit as strong as that of Is This It; Casablancas' compositional skills here are far from great, and I don't regard them as superior to his work on the debut, but nevertheless I'm blissfully unaware of the major defects that fans and critics alike attribute to the album, enabling me to enjoy the CD to the fullest.
Tracks like Reptilia and 12:51, with their catchy riffs, solid vocal melodies and viscerally gratifying rocking power, are everything one could ask for from a modern garage rock act, while numbers like Meet Me In The Bathroom and Under Control are minor departures from the album's norm and thus quite refreshing without ever really introducing much in the way of diversity into the mix, which is par for the course when it comes to the genre and thus by no means a bad thing.
In the long run I find both Is This It and Room On Fire to be somewhat underwhelming musical experiences, knocking the band off the lofty pedestal that they've been seemingly arbitrarily elevated to. Nevertheless I find both albums to be quite enjoyable, showcasing at least modest songwriting skills from Casablancas and some solid chemistry between the musicians.
Thus the Strokes are not the saviors of rock, but rather a moderately talented rock outfit that happened to be in the right place at the right time, anticipating the retro garage rock movement right before it exploded onto the contemporary music scene. Equipped with a modicum of ability and a healthy grasp of the fundamentals of the genre they took the music world by storm, doing so with such deceptive ease that virtually every other rock act decided they could achieve the same success by adhering to the Strokes' formula. Sadly these imitators were largely right, as the Strokes never possessed monumental abilities that others would be hard-pressed to duplicate, and thus in the long run these trend-hoppers' output and the Strokes' oeuvre became virtually indistinguishable from one another. The Strokes did what they did well, and were rewarded for their merits, but it was never something that only they could do; they may have come up with their own sound, but it was a musical voice that could easily be drowned out by enough pounding riffage and distorted noisemaking emanating from the studios of their colleagues and competitors.
While Room On Fire has been the recipient of some rather harsh, scathing critiques, the manner in which First Impressions Of Earth has been excoriated make those criticisms seem like the highest of praise.
The reason for this critical savagery is readily apparent; on First Impressions Of Earth, the Strokes finally leave their comfort zone and attempt to craft a more 'serious' album. Unfortunately, there are some flaws that can be overlooked if they're perpetrated by a lightweight garage rock group that become far greater liabilities in the context of a more ambitious project, and the band's transparent pretensions merely serve to magnify each defect that emerges on the album.
It feels as if the Strokes left the garage rock genre prematurely, as they simply hadn't reached the point where they were truly ready to 'graduate' to more ambitious endeavors. Casablancas, while somewhat talented, has still not become an especially accomplished songwriter and likely never will, capable of little more than a few catchy riffs and the occasional inspired vocal melody.
Furthermore, his vocals on the album are rather erratic; while some of their ugliness is intentional for misguided 'artistic' reasons, his performance is usually decent enough, but all too often listeners will find themselves wishing that his vocals were distorted in the same manner with which they were on the band's first two outings, a crutch that perhaps Casablancas had yet to outgrow.
Casablancas, however, is hardly the primary culprit when it comes to the quality of First Impressions Of Earth. The worst calamity is simply the loss of the raw, inviting garage rock atmosphere that permeated the group's early work, which has been replaced with a cold, sterile and detached vibe that favors sonic ugliness over any kind of excitement or energy. The pace of the album is often enervated, which is hardly conducive toward success for a group as limited as the Strokes.
The band had relied on their retro charm, and with that gone they're exposed as the competent but unexceptional band that they are. There're simply too few catchy riffs or memorable melodies, all attempts at artiness are laughable at best and their lyrics are absolutely horrid on every level.
First Impressions Of Earth is not wholly bereft of merit, however, as a handful of solid songs remain. The album starts on a deceptive note with three stellar tracks that rank amongst the group's finest works and will have over-optimistic listeners assuming that this will be the band's magnum opus. You Only Live Once is an entertaining slice of pop metal, while Juicebox is an absolutely ferocious rocker with a killer bassline and a primitive but effective riff. Better still is Heart In A Cage, another monstrous onslaught of flashy solos and savage riffage, not to mention some solid vocal hooks and one of Casablancas' better performances as a singer.
Unfortunately the album rapidly plunges into mediocrity shortly thereafter. The fourth track, Razorblade, is decent enough, but it fails to sustain the level of quality that had preceded it, and from there things get much worse far too quickly. There are still other worthwhile tracks, like Ize Of The World, but nothing can recapture the momentum that the album sadly lost after the opening trio.
One of the most egregious mistakes of the album is its length. Both Is This It and Room On Fire were barely over thirty minutes, an ideal length for the kind of entertaining yet shallow brand of rock that they specialized in. First Impressions Of Earth, on the other hand, is well over fifty minutes, an unforgivable mistake when dealing with material this same-sounding and inconsistent. The album would greatly benefit from the attention of an intelligent editor to deal with this self-indulgent excess.
Nevertheless First Impressions Of Earth is somewhat underrated. It's far from bad, and can actually be rather entertaining at times. I would describe the overall album as mediocre, but that's a rather charitable assessment compared with the reception it received from most fans and critics.
The Strokes are, apparently, simply not ready to progress beyond their humble roots. If Casblancas had been able to generate more than a handful of strong melodies, if the atmosphere wasn't so bleak and lifeless and if the CD received some judicious editing then perhaps it could have been the band's best album to date. As it stands the group have some issues that they need to work out before they can develop further, and the safer world of mainstream garage rock may still be the ideal forum for this evolution. Sadly the group were hardly masters in that genre as well, and thus may be irrevocably consigned to a situation that will never match the band's overarching ambitions.
When critiquing rock bands, one must make allowances for certain strengths and weaknesses that are particular to the group in question. Thus in order to be fair one must adopt a criteria that's specific to a given artist. In this regard, the approach I use for The Strokes tends to be one of benign condescension, with dramatically lower standards than I would bring to a superior rock outfit.
For example, I would fault most groups for playing it too safe or being overly artistically conservative. Such a complaint would seem almost hypocritical if applied to The Strokes, however, given that I excoriated First Impressions of Earth, the band's first attempt to take a risk and leave their comfort zone.
Also, ordinarily I might feel cheated by a 34 minute album in the wake of a five year sabbatical, but its bloated length was one of First Impressions of Earth's greatest liabilities. Similarly, the brevity of The Strokes' first two albums was one of their chief virtues, making the shortness of their latest venture most welcome indeed.
What this means is that I'm willing to be somewhat more charitable when dealing with The Strokes. This isn't to say that I'm going to artificially inflate their ratings or heap underserved praise upon them. I will, however, abstain from certain criticisms that are either implicit or expected, and react less vehemently to musical transgressions that would customarily launch me into fits of vitriolic invective.
This is all because, even after all these years, The Strokes are an inherently limited and flawed band, the objects of undeserved hype much like their more irreverent British counterparts The Arctic Monkeys.
Unsurprisingly, Angles holds few surprises. The album is, once again, an homage to retro guitar-rock and the garage bands of yore. At this point 'homage' might be a misnomer, though, as this 'tribute' status is likely simply a mask to conceal The Strokes' creative and artistic inadequacies.
This is a front that the band must cling to now more than ever, after exposing their weaknesses on First Impressions of Earth. On that album The Strokes proved that, at least for the moment, they're incapable of progressing beyond their garage-rock roots, which is all the more depressing given that their 'garage-rock' image is purely manufactured to begin with.
Once one accepts that Angles will be more of the same, one will find a fundamentally decent album, albeit an album that's inferior to Is This It and Room On Fire. Angles is certainly better than First Impressions of Earth, but it's debatable whether this improvement stems from superior songwriting or the innate charm of their reclaimed retro style.
The songwriting is rather erratic, but that's par for the course when dealing with The Strokes. There is one encouraging sign for the future, as the opener, Machu Picchu, is one of the album's best songs despite actually taking some risks. The track brings in some mild funk elements, establishing an infectious groove unlike anything else that can be encountered in the band's catalogue.
Elsewhere You're So Right and Metabolism are a pair of dark riff-rockers that, while essentially being The Strokes by numbers, are still quite entertaining. The poppy Gratisfaction is also not without its charms, even though the band still have a limited facility for creating memorable melodies, relying more on riffs than vocal hooks.
Such is not the case with the album's closer, Life is Simple in the Moonlight, a track that contains one of the catchiest vocal melodies in the band's oeuvre. The Strokes did well to position their two best cuts at the very beginning and end of the album, an old but effective trick that many bands seem to have forgotten over the years (or never learned in the first place).
Most of the other tracks are filler, albeit inoffensive filler. There are no misguided flirtations with dissonance a la First Impressions of Earth, but there's precious little excitement and inspiration as well. The Strokes' formula may have proven successful, but that doesn't mean that the band are entitled to rely on it at the expense of creativity and intelligence.
Many have bemoaned the fact that The Strokes sound more professional here, and while I have many problems with Angles this certainly isn't one of them. I never really bought the band's old garage-rocker routine, and if anything this newfound professionalism is a welcome development. It's not as if all rawness has been excised from the Strokes-sound, and the slicker studio approach actually fits given that secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, pop-music has always been at the forefront of the group's sound.
Thus Angles is a flawed but somewhat entertaining album. There are a handful of strong numbers, and the filler is far more palatable than the filler on First Impressions of Earth. It may be disheartening to watch a band take a risk then immediately retreat from it at the first hint of danger, but it's a move that I personally endorse. This is because, as I've said numerous times, The Strokes are simply not a very good band, and thus they have no business taking ambitious artistic gambits. On Angles The Strokes can be seen as they really are: a mildly talented guitar-rock group who, while shallow, can still provide a decent enough time for their audience.