#17, NOVEMBER 2004



by Joe S. Harrington

New Strokes alb n’ once again the mainstream press—and especially the hipster mouthpieces—are picking on these dorkos. But the fact remains, and can’t be argued with—the Strokes ‘re one o’ the best groups to come down the pike in a long while, at their best evoking everything from Roxy Music to Television to Swell Maps to Sonic Youth and all the other great bands we’ve always known and loved. To think that in any way the White Fudge Stripes compare is ridiculous—and whereas I thought Elephantine, the last waxing from Jack Black n’ company, was the WORST alb o’ 2003, I think Room on Fire, the Strokes’ sophomore effort, is a good candidate for Best album of the year (in a world where Big Midnight doesn’t exist, that is). It definitely sums up the state-of-urban-twenty-somethings who really don’t give a shit—and the music is seamless and complex, “modern” and mechanical, yet soulful and passionate. Of course Blastitude readers know I’ve always been a fan of these ponces—
And once again, it all might come down to distance. Living in Maine the whole fashionista flounce o’ the Strokes doesn’t come off quite as offensive as I suppose it does to urban twenty-somethings trying to eek out their downscale bohemian existence in light of these guys phooooshing around acting contemptuously and making fun o’ the plebescites—or better yet, ignoring them. There’s nothing a young hipster-on-the-make likes less than to be ignored. He or she may tell you that they don’t care ‘bout that shit—but actually their whole “indifferent” pose is just a way to be noticed…but the way they want to be noticed wasn’t the same way Handsome Dick Manitoba wanted to be “noticed”…he wanted to be noticed as the guy breakin’ up yr party w/ a jockstrap tied to his forehead—a CLOWN in other wds. The moderne hipster on the other hand wants to be noticed in the same way a kitten wants to be noticed — mainly he wants you to rub his tummy and give him a toy mouse.
As some of the chief mouse-givers, where does this leave the Strokes? Getting back to the fashion thing, since at least two o’ the Strokes are fashion family scions, they certainly count as a “fashion” band. But if the music was a hollow shell, their whole act wouldn’t be worth talking about—which is the way I feel about Jack Black, whom I began to get wary of during the summer of 2001, even before the third alb (I honestly forget what it was called) became a “cult” smash and “I’m in Love with a Girl” crackled over the radio between Britney etc.—which admittedly WAS pretty cool, along w/ the coming ascendance of the Strokes, a sure sign that the “rock” revival was on—
But the more the vengeful nerds at mags like Spin and Blender began proclaiming Jerk Black to be some bastard child o’ Rob Plant n’ Elvis, I began to see thru the fat-boy facade…and while songs like “Oh Mary” were OK, a lot of what Jack was up to was wank—and once again, it’s Midwest vs. New York…Jack-off wants you to BELIEVE he’s an authentic blueshound…which to me comes off as corny. Whereas the Strokes don’t care about “authentic” — unless o’ course we’re talkin’ their Amani nightrags. Both acts are admittedly contrived—but what isn’t in the modern arts? As Black’s recent punch-out o’ the lead singer of the Von Bondies proves, he really is trying to live up to some kind of rough-hewn persona, as if he’s the new Johnny Cash. Once again, looking up to the hicks whereas the Strokes look up to something urbane like Warhol.
Both bands on their current albs have totally changed direction: but whereas the Stripes’ Elephantine was a post-modern mess of robotic beats and lackluster songwriting, Room on Fire, the latest Stroke offering, takes the “new wave” revival pioneered by people like the Faint, Postal Service and Tris McCall, into the next dimension—I always had these cats pegged as the Boomtown Rats of their day, but between album one, Is This It?, and Room on Fire, the Strokes’ve become the CARS and this alb is their Candy-O. No Vargas cover, just an ugly tapestry—but these guys are the absolute shit-worst at album covers when y’ think about it. If you recall, the last one originally had a naked man on the cover—TOTALLY GAY! But y’ know such artists as Bowie, Hendrix, Lou Reed and Graham Parker always had piss-poor cover art masking great music—who cares? The CD format o’ course shrunk the whole visual-presentation side o’ “rock” anyway, and now w/ Ipods and other micro-forms of music—downloading and whatnot—album art is just gonna be more irrelevant than ever. “C’est la vie” as the Strokes—or for that matter, the Cars—would say.
But it ain’t the Cars y’ first hear at the beginning of Room on Fire, it’s BLONDIE! But if these guys grasp Blondie, it’s the Chris Stein side of Blondie…mainly: “EEEEEH!” Who do y’ thunk was actually responsible for that heaving disco beat on “Heart of Glass”? And it’s that pulsating yawp that we hear to begin the alb on the opening cut, “What Ever Happened?” before singer Julian Casablancas (who’s one-part Richard Hell to two-parts Iggy and one small percentile of a Bob Geldoff) proclaims: “I wanna be forgotten” and y’ can’t help but believe him, esp. since in their interviews as well as their videos the Strokes come off as a band w/ zero personality—but then again, y’ could’ve said the same thing about Television (whom the Strokes ‘re most often compared to).
Take a recent Magnet cover story, which ran 6 pages and where the whole band came off as a bunch of typical twenty-something zooids—does anyone remember one word of it? The only memorable part was finding out Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. was actually the spawn o’ the maestro who gave us “It Never Rains In Southern California” back in the seventies (he’s also, not coincidentally, the only Stroke with any actual musical talent other than Casablancas—the rest of ‘em are merely mannequins, albeit competent enough). Otherwise, the whole piece was full of typical bored-rock-stars-sitting-around-observing-life-in-a-fishbowl preening.
Once again, when it comes to discussing the Strokes, none of that matters—so they’re contrived, a machine, possibly don’t even play their own instruments ala the Monkees? Who cares? Certainly not the band themselves. But they’re not strictly the fashion fops their detractors have made them out to be either (although what else is one supposed to think about a band with two members named Fabio?) Although they’re as boring as any musicians, at least when they’re being interviewed, they don’t come off as any more callous than any twenty-somethings (even if they may go to better parties). In short, like any true “punk” band, they seem unaffected by success (altho’ the fact two of ‘em are dating actresses could certainly betray a hint of rockstar-itis…Jesus, I’m surprised Al Sr. didn’t sit ‘em down for a lecture about the fleeting nature o’ pop success).
Just how eponymous the Strokes are w/ the times they live in is epitomized by the album’s first hit, “12:51,” which not only features crazy Cars organ and whooshing snapdrum (which proves they’ve really jumped on the eighties revival bandwagon already perpetrated by the Postal Service, Faint, Tris McCall, the Rapture, I Am the World Trade Center, and, most recently, Lansing-Dreiden) but some of the most dead-honest (and deadpan) lyrics of our times:

We could go and get 40s
Fuck goin’ to that party
Oh really, your folks are away now?
Anyway, let’s go you convinced me

Besides sneaking the word “fuck”—masked by the vocoderized vocals o’ Julian Casablancas—into a Top 40 hit at a time of censorship and hysteria, this song is Casablancas’ attempt to sum up the plight of the typical twenty-something…the “Andrew Colston Generation” for want of a better term. The fact he utters these wds through the filter of the voicebox (think Sniff & the Tears’ “Hey St. Peter,” another obvious prototype) and that it’s ringed with that damn Candy-o hook is just further proof that these guys just don’t give a damn! I mean, that’s the most say-nothing lyrics since Ric Ocasek muttered things like “I’m a psilocybin pony/You’re a slick fandango phoney.” And if you recall, those guys—the Cars, that is—also did the pretty-boy pose, even though in actuality they were old hippies just like the Strokes are drag-hags. It doesn’t matter—just like the Cars’ first alb was a masterpiece, Is This It?, the debut LP by the Strokes, became one of the signature statements of its time.
Which is why Casablancas’ tossed-off lyrics are more significant than ever—the fact the band has approached icon status and all they have to say about it is “eeeeh, we could go and get forties” just shows you the difference between this generation and, say, the original purveyors of Hippie, Glam and Punk—all of whom went for the Big Statement, even if the statement was “fuck you” etc. The Strokes merely abdicate all “responsibility” for their audience, as if to say, “hey, we don’t know how we got up here either, hyuck hyuck”—in this sense they also ain’t that much different than the Bay City Rollers (whom they also resemble in their cuddly veneer).
Only the Strokes do know how they got up there — mainly, daddy bought it for ‘em. But at least they ain’t waxin’ any long-suffering paeans to the human condition or extrapolating on their political outlook…like Ocasek and company, their music is a reflection of the world around them: “So many fish, there in the sea/I wanted you, you wanted me/That’s just a phase, it’s got to pass/I was a train moving too fast,” Casablancas sings on “Automatic Stop” in a voice so nasal and deadpan it betrays his utter contempt for even having to bother to describe such things. So these guys date on the higher echelon (“nothing below a seven” — Julian) and get laid a lot…why deny it? In this sense, the Strokes are as much a by-product of such immoral post-modern treasures as Berlin and Madonna as they are Richard Hell, Television, and the Cars. And while admittedly my fascination with this album is partly perverse, one cannot deny that once the song gets beyond the intro, it hops n’ skips into a percolating blast o’ white-reggae dread similar to the downstroking humdrum perfected years ago by the Clash circa London Calling (and when y’ think of it, the Strokes are not un-London Calling-like just like they're not unlike anything else from that era) only w/ that damn Blondie disco beat!
Odd little accent marks throughout the album—like the obvious ref to the Motions’ Merseybeat hit “For Another Man” during the intro to “You Talk Way Too Much”—help drive home the fact that these guys’ influences go deeper than the constant sneering putdown of Hell/Verlaine or the Cars trick-organ, but they ain’t close to being “retro” since their whole statement-of-purpose is so utterly post-millennial. Still, there’s something about this album that separates it from such opuses as Tris McCall’s Shootout At the Sugar Factory in the annals of urban “art-rock”—the more I listen to it, the more I realize Room on Fire is just like one long stream o’ static. For now, it’s a holding action—and no matter what y’ wanna say about the Pink Stripes, they’re on album four already…the Strokes are only on album number two, and may never get beyond it.
Perhaps Jim Carroll, another pokerfaced purveyor of late seventies downtown decadence, summed it up best when he said: “They’re so decadent/Until their daddy’s money from home’s all spent.”

by Larry Dolman

Unlike me, Joe H. isn't afraid to admit that the Strokes are actually a good band, and he does it with the absolutely correct amount of cynicism (i.e. not enough to stop him). He inspires me to go ahead and admit that I actually like every Strokes song I've ever heard, which is about three, and that I'm looking forward to when my wife picks up that first album like she says she wants to, because I know it'll be better in the car than the godawful new Modest Mouse album she just got (when I wasn't around). Nonetheless, before Joe submitted the article you just read, I had vowed to never publish another word about the Strokes. A couple months ago, I even turned down a regular contributor's well-written (favorable) review of their second album, The Roof Is On Fire or Room To Live or whatever it's called. But oh well, things change, and for those who are cringing with anxiety because their fave rave mag Blastitude published an article on those oh-so-(un)cool Strokes -- OOPS! Life can be so confusing sometimes......