Remember life before The Strokes? Guitar music sounded like something you’d rather convalesce to than go out and rock to. Its stars looked like binmen and talked like librarians. In fact, the whole foggy, soggy mess looked like it was about to be blasted into obsolescence by the hip hop, nu-metal and R&B which had comprehensively outgunned it in the style, outrage and tune stakes.
But just when all seemed lost (and music mags were closing down right, left and centre, broadly due to the lack of anyone worth reading about), the cavalry arrived. Five young, sexy and skinny New Yorkers, The Strokes provided absolutely everything that had been lacking from modern rock‘n’roll. Neither boorishly arrogant in the Oasis
mode or sappily polite a laTravis, The Strokes were simply drop deal cool – sharply dressed “dirty puppies” who were handy in a street fight. Their grimy, sleaze-soaked music provided a breath of stale air after the breezy, deodorised dadrock we’d suffered at the hands of the New Acoustic Movement. Tightly bonded and buccaneering, here – at last! – was a band it looked fun to be in. And did we mention how good they looked? The skinny ties/suit jackets/Converse/”heroin mullet” (© Courtney Love) now ubiquitous in indie discos nationwide is entirely due to The Strokes.
None of which would have had any impact had it not been for the music. The Strokes are one of a rare breed – including Oasis, Suede and Stone Roses – who came out of the traps pretty much ideal. And like those bands, their sound marked a total break from what had immediately gone before. Just as Suede rejected baggy for glam, and Stone Roses swapped Eighties gloom for Byrdsian dazzle, rather than mining the mimsy likes of Tim Buckley, The Strokes reinvigorated the long-dormant sound of New York punk – that vein of black scuzz that runs backwards to [a][/a] through[a][/a], [a][/a]and Johnny Thunders.
They did much more than that, however. Like their canniest forebears, The Strokes lay their sleaze over foundations of pure pop: three-minute tunes your mum and your dealer could whistle with equal gusto. The Strokes’ debut album ‘Is This It’ collected together their entire slender oeuvre (11 songs) in one impeccably elegant 36-minute package. ‘Is This It’ raised the bar (I)and(I) opened the floodgates for a slew of other acts you can read about every week in these very pages. How would, how (I)could(I) The Strokes follow that?
By honing their sound ever more obsessively, comes the answer. While second albums classically amp up the decibels, throw in the congas and include at least one seven-minute, orchestra-spangled epic, ‘Room On Fire’ is even more pared down that ‘Is This It’. There aren’t even any backing vocals on these eleven songs that clock in between 3.35 (‘Reptilia’) and 2.17 (‘The Way It Is’), the whole thing coming in three minutes shorter than its predecessor. If Stone Roses‘ notorious ‘The Second Coming’ was a Roman Emperor-style blowout, ‘Room On Fire’ is on the Atkins diet.
>Which doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But Julian, Fab, Albert, Nick and Nikolai have been slaving in your service – and like most New Yorkers, they take service very seriously. Their business is YOUR pleasure and they’re going to make sure ‘Room On Fire’ delivers. Which it does. From the deliberately downbeat opening ‘What Ever Happened’ to the final, swinging cousin of ‘Last Nite’, ‘I Can’t Win’, ‘Room On Fire’ makes sure that its every molecule is employed to make you feel good.
It still sounds like The Strokes, of course. While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know whatRadiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich might have brought to the table (until the inevitable box set many years from now), the drums are still tinny, the guitars are bright and Julian slurs plaintively down in the mix through a variety of distorting mics. What’s new is the sense of The Strokes opening up slowly to other forms of music, from reggae (‘Automatic Stop’) to metal (‘The End Has No End’, which welds breezy pop to a ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’-style riff). The total stunner is ‘Under Control’, in which The Strokes “do” soul. Julian’s yearning, ragged vocal melody somehow evokes Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Fab’s drums are like Motown on a downer. It’s a classic feelgood/feelbad love song – and the best thing they’ve ever done.
Lyrically, things are as vague as ever – especially as Julian refuses to discuss them publicly. But it’s fair to say that this is an album as lyrically depressed as it is musically elated. Most of it seems devoted to wriggling free of failed relationships. On the linear, fuzzed-out punk of ‘The Way It Is’ Julian rasps “I’m sick of you/And that’s the way it is”. ‘Automatic Stop’’s gorgeous chorus croons “Wait/I’m not gonna give you a break/I’m not your friend…”. The chorus of ‘Between Love And Hate’ (formerly ‘Ze Newie’) repeats the line “I never needed anybody”. Then there’s the thrumming, self-explanatory ‘You Talk Way Too Much’. Throughout ‘Room On Fire’, Julian sounds beleaguered by nagging girlfriends, while one night stands provide no relief either (“One night sex and what’s that sound? Oh no!” wails ‘The End Has No End’).
His escape route is into the music, which sounds as vital as on The Strokes’ debut. The glorious new wave of ‘12:51’ is custom made for rock ‘n’ roll dancefloors, ‘Reptilia’ wraps Julian’s ragged vocals around a totally seductive chorus and ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ is effortlessly decadent.
What’s missing is the shock and delight that accompanied ‘Is This It’, the sense of territories being (re)discovered. ‘Room On Fire’ is a refining and tinkering with The Strokes sound, a carefully calibrated attempt not to fuck up too early in the face of untold temptations. The results are still sleek, sexy and thrilling, with a tantalising promise of even better to come.