Velveteen Apoplexy: Listening to the Strokes
One thing I love about rock ‘n’ roll is its openhearted egalitarian aesthetic. Heck, even a coupla privileged kids who met at Switzerland’s L’Institut le Rosey can get together and make great rock ‘n’ roll! Yep, I’m talking about the Strokes, scions of wealth taking the world by storm. Julian Casablancas (son of Elite Modeling Agency founder Johnny Casablancas) and Albert Hammond Jr. (son of schlock songwriter Albert Hammond) met at L’Institut le Rosey while they were barely teens. Casablancas transferred from there to Manhattan’s elite Dwight School, where he met guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fab Moretti. The rest is rock’n'roll history: wealthy kids pull strings, lay down some excellent tracks, play a few gigs, and become world-famous.
Well, it’s not that bad, I guess. The string-pulling probably would’ve been for nought if they didn’t look and sound so damn good. And even their wealth may have been useless if their tireless manager Ryan Gentles hadn’t plugged the Modern Age EP so ceaselessly among DJs and record companies in the UK. Still, the Strokes prompted such a geyser of relentless hype that a backlash was inevitable. Naysayers and cynics noted their privileged backgrounds, their charmless lack of personality, the svengalis and handlers surrounding the band.
Now (just a few weeks after their debut album Is This It? was released) there is already a backlash to the backlash. Sure, they’re a bunch of spoiled rich brats, but listen to these dynamite songs! So, yes, it’s difficult to peer behind the purple drapery of hype and backlash to see the skinny, eager band tumbling around in back. I’ll give it a shot. The first thing to do when approaching such an elusive subject is to but yourself in the mind of, ahem, Keats’ negative capability: you gotta hold two opposing ideas in your mind simultaneously without caving in to either. Thus, the Strokes suck, and the Strokes are brilliant.
Aw, hell I can’t do it. The Strokes have a great sound, and the album is lots of fun. But they are not the saviors of rock’n'roll, nor are they even remotely cool. Yet their arrogant blandness is fascinating in its way. See? See what happens when you try to think about them too deeply?
Cue up to track one: a tune, a Title Track, called “Is This It”. Whiny petulant lead singer Julian Casablancas wants to go to some sweet young thing’s apartment, but he’s so tired, now he’s staying. “Dear can’t you see / It’s them not me / We’re not enemies / We just disagree”. And then the weary chorus: “is this it?”—delivered as passionately as possible, as if the limitless smorgasbord of life as a privileged rock star isn’t enough for poor Julian. Not a horrible tune, but take it from me: it is the worst song on the album.
The rest of the songs all speed along with a grainy, hyperactive sound that is obviously well-coached and precise, yet infectious nonetheless. Track two is a brilliant song called “The Modern Age” that will have you grinning and bobbing your head along without a second thought. Yes, the melody and sound are all swiped from Lou Reed’s “New Sensations”, but who grins and bobs their head along to a hoary Lou track like that? It’s an ace taste of the rest of the album: the production values are like a mutant skittering hybrid of Plastic Ono Band and Marquee Moon. The vocals are lightly roasted in distorto-grease. The lyrics channel Katrina and the Waves (“In the sunshine having fun / It’s in my blood / I can’t help it”) for a wonderful contrast to the grimy squalor the sound evokes. Casablancas even tries to yodel like Little Richard at one point, such is his enthusiasm. This is the tune that launched their career, as British DJs and record execs (but especially Geoff Travis of Rough Trade) couldn’t help but cartwheel in and out of the office after “whiz kid” Ryan Gentles played it for ‘em.
And the rest of the album just detonates like a long string of firecrackers. The Katrina and the Waves influence continues with the bouncy, infectious fun of “Last Nite”. “Soma” and “Barely Legal” are astonishingly decadent facsimiles of an olde New York City sound exhumed and now dancing on its coffin. Like torturing Dave Johansen on a rack or giving Richard Hell a manicure, these tunes are appealing in strange and inexplicable ways. It’s the sound; no, it’s the attitude. You try to figure it out. “Hard to Explain” actually includes a tiny wafer of rebellion in the lyrics (“I am too young, and they are too old”), as it engages us in some amphetamine quick-stop transitions. “Someday” features familiar chord changes that wrap around us like a warm blanket. “Barely Legal” is a nifty indie somersault that thankfully helps you embrace the sound and the happy riffs before you pay attention to the lyrics, which seem to have something to do with the title.
A lot of the Strokes hype surrounds a song called “New York City Cops”, which was deleted from the U.S. album in light of the recent tragedies in New York City. It was replaced by a tune called “When It Started”. Having heard both, I can assure my fellow Americans that the U.S. version of the album is far superior than the UK “original”. “New York City Cops” begins with a Fall rip-off riff and vocal tic, followed by some stoned chuckling and a vaguely crooned anecdote about sex or something. Then the chorus goes, “New York City Cops / They ain’t so smart”. I’m sorry, but KRS-One was a lot more insightful on this topic, and anyway what’s a rich kid doing complaining about New York City cops? Retitle the song “New York City Art Brats” and I’ll buy. “When It Started”, however, is a nice fanciful, slightly funky shuffle with polyrhythms and fascinating textures percolating throughout. Don’t miss out. Poor Brits, stuck with the dumb song.
The two closing tracks are worth the wait. “Trying My Luck” is simultaneously wide-eyed and weary: innocence and experience, hope and cynicism, simulated quite ably by a feral and plaintive Casablancas. Even the guitar riff is doubled: a skittery Velvets riff doubled by a more urgent, deeper-toned riff that seems to work backwards over the song. Great stuff. Then we’re ambushed by a raucous propulsive number called “Take It Or Leave It”: the guitar riff swings quickly back and forth like the pit and the pendulum, and Casablancas barks the chorus with a nice touch of distilled venom. This is the tune that features the oft-quoted lyric, “Girls lie too much / Boys act too tough / Enough is enough”, though that’s about all you’re gonna get out of it content-wise. Good thing he didn’t mention that men are from Mars and women from Venus, anyway. Thus ends the album. You scratch your head, frown. Pretty good, but not what the hype seemed to suggest, right? You don’t get any sense of real personality from the songs, for one thing. Cue back to track one. You’ll like some songs a lot more, and some of them even less. And yet . . .
Despite their ace sound and tasteful thievery, there’s something missing from the Strokes: content. Most of their lyrics are forgettable pleasantries and blandified tropes presumably dealing with the comfortable, superficial experiences of lyricist Julian Casablancas. At least overhyped indie phenoms of the past gave you something to chew on, from the dark mythic surrealism of the Pixies, to the knife-twisting accuracy of Nirvana, to the accidental poetry of Pavement. But the Strokes leave you with nothing, which I suppose is the secret meaning behind their album’s title. Ah, but they’re young. Let’s just hope that they don’t hire guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.‘s dad (author of “It Never Rains in Southern California” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”) to doctor the lyrics of the next Strokes opus.
There is something both attractive and off-putting about the way the speedy, precise riffs of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. hurry forth, while lead singer Julian Casablancas imitates every Lou Reed vocal nuance he can possibly coax past his larynx. Attractive because it’s a sound that every well-heeled indie-rocker has grown to love. But off-putting because these kids seem too rich, naive, and handsome to fathom the depths of the squalid greatness that their influences struggled to achieve. Really, how did these rosy-cheeked pastoral kids—who grew up on Pearl Jam and Nirvana (while listening to the tweety birds outside their Swiss private school windows)—suddenly transform themselves into near-perfect imitations of a scummy urban underground sound that stretches from Velvets to Television? This all seems rather well-planned and perfected doesn’t it? As if these kids were schooled in the verities of punk by some svengali or guru (hmmm…who is this “J.P. Bowersock” pictured as “guru” in the booklet, anyway?).
I think I get it now: the Strokes are a blank slate upon which the zeitgeist (and a couple of happy opportunists) inscribed their Dream Band. Once these kids absorb the aesthetic fully, and start investing themselves in some strong individualistic personalities, you can bet they will be a menace. But I bet they’ll split up before doing anything this great again.