You can't blame The Strokes for getting just a bit sick of all the pressure. Two years ago, critics and music geeks saw these guys as rock's saviors, and while Is This It sold relatively well, it didn't come anywhere close to having the kind of Nevermind-style impact that many people were hoping for. It was nothing more than a really good debut album by an immensely talented young band, but the hype seemed to linger into the next couple of years, as every new song the band unveiled in concert was floating on the Net almost instantaneously. The band attracted a furiously loyal following, as every move, every song was obsessively scrutinized; fans collectively drooled when it was made known that the band was recording with producer Nigel Godrich (he of Radiohead fame). A short while later, however, The Strokes amicably parted company with Godrich, choosing to record their follow-up album with Is This It producer Gordon Raphael instead, and you could practically hear the collective groan on the Internet.
That said, Strokes fans are completely justified in wanting to be blown away by a new album. It's the kind of feeling every music fan craves, be it the complete shock you felt when you first downloaded The Modern Age EP in early 2001, having your jaw hit the floor the first time you heard the pop rock genius of "Hard to Explain" four months later, the same passionate indignation you felt when you learned that "NYC Cops" was going to be edited off the North American release of Is This It. So you can probably imagine the deflated reaction among many listeners upon first hearing the band's new single "12:51", as, "It sounds just like the last album!" became the popular refrain. These days, it's commonplace for young bands to not fully live up to their potential, as they aim too high, trying way too hard to impress, but anyone who dismisses The Strokes' new album after just one listen is seriously mistaken.
On Room on Fire, the band's sound has indeed evolved a great deal, but what's most ingenious is the way they went about doing it. It's like a do-over, as it sounds as if The Strokes recorded the new album in the exact same way as they recorded their debut, but this time around, as a band with plenty of touring experience, with new musical ideas, and a newfound maturity. All the most memorable characteristics of Is This It are present on the new record: Julian Casablancas's highly compressed vocals, the creative drumming of Fabrizio Moretti, who sounds like he just had a couple of mikes on his kit, Nikolai Fraiture's understated, yet highly melodic basslines, and the duo of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, who trade impeccable, tight guitar licks. It's what the band does with those same ingredients that makes this album surpass the previous one.
The record is loaded with nifty little touches, accents that give it more color, marking a change from Is This It's more monochromatic feel. There's the slinky, funk-infused four bar intro in "What Ever Happened?", the drumbeat in "The End Has No End" that greatly resembles Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean", followed by a sly nod to the riff from Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O Mine", the deliciously catchy guitar synth lick in "12:51" that gets in your head and won't ever leave, and the distinctive, angular guitars in "Reptilia". You can hear a slight hint of reggae in "Automatic Stop", which also boasts a terrific guitar harmony in the shuffling chorus, a dub influence in Fraiture's bass in "Between Love and Hate", Moretti's almost drum machine-like sound on "The Way it Is", and the pure, buoyant energy of "I Can't Win", which is driven by Hammond's and Valensi's guitar work.
There's so much more musical depth on Room on Fire, that it makes most of the band's earlier songs sound stale in comparison, as the band eschews the Velvet Underground influence, in favor of a more '80s pop feel. Singles like "Hard to Explain" and "Someday" showed what great pop craftsmen the Strokes could be, and they've upped the ante on this album, completely transcending the "new garage" tag they were labeled with nearly three years ago. The irresistible "12:51" possesses the band's most memorable melody to date, a perfect two and a half minutes, with that great guitar synth (shades of The Cars) and some good old, reliable handclaps, which always manage to make a song sound better. "Under Control" provides the album's biggest surprise, a shimmering, soulful ballad that evokes the prettiest Motown singles of the Sixties, with its lyrical and melodic simplicity. "Reptilia" is the sound of band at their most ferocious, while "The End Has No End" and "I Can't Win" reiterate how good these guys are at composing uncomplicated, contagious pop hooks time and again.
Out of all members of the band, it's Casablancas who emerges as the most improved. His vocals might be down in the mix a bit, but he's still the focal point of the band, and on this album, he proves his worth. Living in a fish bowl like he has been for the past couple of years, it had to have a huge effect on the guy, and you can hear it in his lyrics, as well as in his voice. He no longer tries to sing like Lou Reed, instead, his voice has a more worn, mature quality to it, a slight rasp emerging whenever he hits the higher notes. You hear that new sense of world-weariness on the first line of the album, as he kicks off "What Ever Happened?" with the sneered lines, "I wanna be forgotten/I don't wanna be reminded." He peppers the album with doses of dry, self-deprecating humor ("So many fish there in the sea/She wanted him, he wanted me"), while "Between Love and Hate" (originally known by diehard fans as "Ze Newie") is the best depiction of teen life since Broken Social Scene's "Anthem For a Seventeen Year Old Girl", as he croons, "Thinkin' 'bout that high school dance/Worried 'bout the finals." Casablancas exudes pure fun in "12:51" when he says, "We could go and get forties/Fuck going to that party," and then he turns right around in "Meet Me in the Bathroom", and knocks you over with a sweetly profound verse like, "We were just two friends in lust/Oh baby, that just don't mean much/And yeah, you trained me not to love/Until you showed me what it was."
Room on Fire doesn't bowl you over, more than it sneaks up on you. It's a sly piece of work, an album that niggles its way into your brain with each repeated listen. Pessimists will say they're taking the safe route, that it's nothing more than a lazy retread of their first album, but it was wise of The Strokes not to overreach themselves with such a crucial sophomore release. This new album is remarkably controlled, focused, and devilishly smart. What we're witnessing here is the continuing, gradual evolution of a band that sounds like they will indeed soon be regarded as the best band in America. In these wired times, where trends and backlashes occur mere weeks, no, days after one another, it's astonishing to see a band willing to actually take their time developing. You can't produce miracles every time, but you can sure as hell deliver some thrills in the process. Like Jack Kerouac once said, walking on water wasn't built in a day.