The Strokes

[18 November 2003]

By Alex Romanelli

That Was It

The Strokes might have finally just gotten too big for their boots. Performing for a sold out crowd that actually appeared to be well under capacity, New York City’s favorite pretty boys seem to have come unstuck as they attempt to convince the masses that their sophomore album Room on Fire offers anything new.

Once a band full of energy and charisma, the Strokes now seem far too studied and calculated, playing their numbers by the numbers. The entire gig has an air of careful planning at the expense of any spontaneity. The band faces the challenge of playing a set of unknown new songs (gig takes place a week before the album’s release) alongside material whose strongest quality is its familiarity. This dichotomy is approached by structuring their set so that each song alternates between the two albums: one song from Is This It is followed by one from Room on Fire, back to Is This It, then back again to Room on Fire and so on. One can see the logic behind it, give the fans something familiar and their attention should ease quite nicely into the new material. But the obviousness of this ploy defeats its purpose. By switching constantly from the over familiar to the unknown undermines any momentum being built, defeating any rapport between the band and the audience. The crowd is forced to awkwardly shift from frenzied pogoing and singalong to standing around appearing thoroughly bored.

Having become a huge breakout success from the indie ghetto (if one could even argue that a gang of privileged rich kids would have ever found themselves stuck in any ghetto), the band are now venturing past the realms of blind adoration and critical fawning, into the real world, i.e. a fickle record buying public. Touring their largest U.S. venues to date, this is what the Strokes are coming up against. And this is where it all begins to fall apart.

If the Strokes really were an exceptionally talented bunch this transition wouldn’t be a problem, with a retained critical respect assured and a growing number of fans. Much has been made of the band’s lack of originality, their strength instead being a canny ability to pick and choose exactly what post-punk riffs to pilfer when. While sounding completely unoriginal, half the songs on Is This It were still thrilling . Not only does Room on Fire retain an identical sound but it produces identically mixed results: half the songs are fantastic, truly greater than the sum of their parts (“Reptilia,” “The End Has No End”), and the other songs, well, take it or leave it (“I Can’t Win”, “Under Control”). This unevenness in the quality of their work really comes to the fore in tonight’s set.

The strongest material from the new album gets lost in the see-sawing set list. And the crowd is getting visibly frustrated from being teased by their old favorites, only to have the moment lost by switching back to something unfamiliar. From a distant standpoint, this all seems rather ironic since on record the two albums sound interchangeable.

The band is quite oblivious to the mediocrity unfolding. Singer Julian Casablancas comes across as just plain lazy rather than loungy, or as lackadaisical at best. He’s clearly too drunk tonight, the booze dampening his previously effortless charisma. On the few occasions he addresses the crowd, his words come out as a slurred mess, random thoughts dropped halfway through. At one point he attempts to pay tribute to Elliott Smith who died the day before, but he can’t complete his thoughts, only succeeding in getting the audience (most of whom clearly don’t know who Elliott Smith is) to blindly cheer at the mention of someone’s death.

Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. is also oblivious, coming across as being totally wrapped up in his own import. One would think he had a mirror down by his monitors, all his moves smack of calculated preening. The silver lining to his cloud of fuzzy hair is the relative abilities of Nick Valensi, highlighted by Hammond’s attempts to hog the spotlight. Hammond and Valensi seem to split lead and rhythm guitar duties fairly evenly, but it’s the latter whose performance clearly shines, demonstrating impressive musical abilities rather unexpected. Still, Valensi’s talent is one of the few reminders that the Strokes certainly used to have It, and clearly they lost It somewhere on the way to the Palladium tonight. A shame.

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