How much did I love The Strokes' debut album? A brief stroll down memory lane may be telling.
I Web-ordered Is This It back in August 2001 on import, intrigued by the hype surrounding the band throughout that summer, thinking that any group so capable of polarizing the rock-crit world had to be worth hearing. The disc arrived at my door the beginning of Labor Day weekend, in a package with hotly anticipated albums by two bands that I'd loved for half my life, both breaking many years of inactivity with their new recordings. Yet over the course of the three-day holiday weekend, New Order's Get Ready and the Chameleons' Why Call It Anything? both very good releases, akin to phoenix-like emergences from the ashes, even were all but ignored in favor of The Strokes.
Is This It absolutely hooked me, leaving me singing along by Friday nightfall, especially from track five on. The pseudo-rockabilly of "Someday" became the theme song for me and my now-ex gal, "Alone we stand/ Together we fall apart" the new mantra for our 18-month relationship in tatters, the title of "Alone Together" putting a name on the feelings we wordlessly shared. The staccato brilliance of "Last Nite," the heady rush of "Hard to Explain," the sheer bilious fun of "NYC Cops" (which appeared on the import version but not the U.S. release), Julian Casablancas shying away from his inner Iggy over the song's opening measures, finally losing his detached cool while shouting through the chorus of "Take It or Leave It" sheer brilliance. And my love for that album hasn't dimmed a bit, even if the fires of those first few months' obsession have cooled into a nice steady appreciation.
Outside me lurked the phenomenon of The Strokes as quite possibly the first genuinely 21st-Century band, swept up into the near-instantaneous news cycle that the Internet and 24/7 news coverage brings to bear. The critics' debate faded into the background as the media promoted them as the heralds of a new rock revolution, come to save the world from the soap opera of Britney and Justin, the record industry preparing to overhaul the assembly lines to switch the machine's big lever from pop to rock once more.
Yet I found myself curiously uninterested in the band itself after reading just a few post-album-release articles and reviews, adoring the art without feeling all that engaged by the artists, something of a rare experience for me even as I continue to (d)evolve into the outsider's outsider.
And now, just over two years of calendar time and a seeming decade of press coverage later comes Room on Fire, the mildly difficult second album. Aside from the brief panicked fear that The Strokes were going all electro-clash on us, instilled by the first 10 seconds of "What Ever Happened?," the main impression the initial listens leaves is that they're holding back a bit, laying out a slow seduction in place of the debut's instant kiss-ability. The playing seems more sophisticated, Nikolai Fraiture's melodic bass taking a lead role at times, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. confidently straying into solo turf while still serving the songs, Fabrizio Moretti's human drum machine integrating again with some genuine boxed Roland beats. The reggae alluded to last time around on "Last Nite" comes through loud and clear on "Automatic Stop" and "Between Love and Hate," while "Under Control" eclipses the debut's mellow title track to let us know that The Strokes can indeed deliver a heartfelt ballad. All the while, that patented ringing, quasi-harmonics Strokes rhythm guitar sound and lo-fi-sounding production remain intact.
As hours bleed into days, it becomes clear that Room on Fire's opaque heart of glass grows on you, the music's lack of immediate Velvet-y appeal supplemented by an addictive new-wave cool, even as Casablancas works against the grain by showing more emotion on any given song here than he did on the entirety of the debut. The incessant synth and handclaps of "12:51" warned us weeks ago that this was coming, while the industrial machinery and robo-drums brought to bear on "The End Has No End" provides the most literal example of this approach. Elsewhere, it's more sensed than spelled out, though Casablancas plays us all for fools on the opening track, singing "You say 'please don't make this harder.'/ No, I won't yet." It's harder to get into these songs all right, but worth the effort even if some of the more casual listeners may be dumping this into the used bins and auction sites with surprising haste.
Contrary bastards that they are, The Strokes do everything backwards. When our previous, prosperous decade found many a bored artist creating needlessly fussy works, The Strokes whipped up a batch of fairly simple tunes for their debut. Now, in an age where comfort food is back and even Radiohead play guitars again, The Strokes have delivered their sophisticated paean to the future. And even as great as these first two albums are, there remains a suspicion that years from now, we may well find ourselves looking back at Room on Fire as the bridge to something truly amazing.