43. Is This It?

43. Is This It?- The Strokes (2001)

How: In late 2006, The Strokes released an eerie single called “Juicebox” which I first heard on my beloved Indie 103.1 FM (LA/OC/IE). The song contained one of the most compelling bass lines I had ever heard along with a manic theatrical vocal performance by frontman Julian Casablancas. I liked the song plenty, but I casted off The Strokes as a broodier Interpol, a band with a lot of similar releases on the same radio station in early 2007 (somehow I linked these bands even before I knew they were linked together when they first arrived in late 2001/early 2002). My friend Tommy tried to convince me that The Strokes were a big deal, but for years all I knew or cared to know about The Strokes was their Juicy Juice song with the funny video.

Weird Al Yankovic holds responsibility for introducing me to the rest of The Strokes discography. He inserted Is This It?’s first single “Last Night” into his brilliant polka medley “Angry White Boy Polka.” It fit musically, but not thematically, as The Strokes had to share the stage with Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, and Papa Roach, and other rap/rock hybrids that made the late nineties a pretty intolerable time for rock ‘n roll. On the sidebar of that YouTube clip, however, were some videos of The Strokes finer moments, namely the real music video for “Last Night” (subliminal messages and all) and the clips for “Someday” and “Hard to Explain,” their finest work to date. It was simple, catchy, stripped down, meat and potatoes rock ‘n roll that I grew to enjoy very quickly.

It took some research to find out that when they released their debut album in 2001, The Strokes were a pretty big deal. The term “saviors of rock ‘n roll” was thrown around a few times, and if I’m not mistaken, it would have made them the first so-called saviors of a genre that hasn’t really died. I discovered articles about their trendsetting fashion sense, their un-ironic apathetic approach to lyricism, and how they sounded like a breath of fresh air by so convincingly re-inventing the wheel. They didn’t actually save rock ‘n roll, as evidenced by their subsequent albums as poorer versions of themselves, and many cast off The Strokes as another band that couldn’t fulfill their potential.

Maintaining a legacy wasn’t really their problem, however; Is This It? already sounded like fulfilled potential when released in 2001, though only a debut album from a band without a fresh sound. They may only have one good album to their name, but there are many handfuls of listenable bands today that owe their success to The Strokes becoming a reincarnation of The Velvet Underground (Interpol included). This doesn’t give Casablancas the same New York immortality as Lou Reed, but it may give them some peace in their later years along with the knowledge that at one time, The Strokes were the best thing rock ‘n roll had to offer.

Why: “Can’t you see I’m trying?/I don’t even like it.” So begins Is This It? If it seems like The Strokes didn’t give a shit, it was by design. This was during a time when rock was filled with grandiose self-pity and required a wave of mindless apathy to set it back on the right course. The Strokes filled the responsibility quite nicely, and far from emo, it seemed like the right attitude for a generation about to be handed the post-9/11 world.

Is This It? lasts for 35 minutes of long-haired, sock-hopping, two-chord rock ‘n roll. This was how rock was recorded in the sixties, as it was meant to be recorded (so say the aged, though I tend to agree). It didn’t matter that the Strokes stole every idea from the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground, because when you’re supposed to be the saviors of rock ‘n roll, you might as well steal from the best. “The Modern Age” sounds too much like “I’m Waiting For The Man,” but when people heard “I’m Waiting For The Man” for the first time, they started their own bands. “Someday” sounds like a Buzzcocks song minus the distortion, and the Buzzcocks were the catalyst for the punk movement, so no one cares. You think “Last Night” is boring? Well you have no taste, because you’re obviously old and hate city life. I’ll stay off your lawn if you stay off my fire escape.

(sorry, that’s a scary voice, I’ll be sure to avoid it for future reviews)

The second half of the album kicks off with “Last Night” and “Hard to Explain,” the former an unexpected hit, the latter one of the greatest and simplest rock songs ever recorded. Casablancas longs like a singer with plenty to emote but nothing to say, and “Hard to Explain” passes through like the best idea that can’t get off the tip of the tongue. We get similar ambivalent brilliance on album closer “Take it or Leave It” and the opener “Is This It,” the heals of a beautiful and hardly loaf of an album (The Strokes are bread, they’re not special but you’d like some every day…best metaphor ever).

Is This It? sounds like rock ‘n roll in its purest form, which contradicts the idea of rock ‘n roll starting out as a hybrid between country and R&B in the first place. There are no complex rhythms, no out-of-place notes, nothing that extends beyond basic pop songwriting. The Strokes do nothing fancy, nothing beyond the two best and most trusted chords in Western music, and their music still compels like the greatest records before it. If I had one album to introduce aliens to the concept of rock ‘n roll, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better one that this. Is This It? would be what the band would ask, and no one would listen, because The Strokes are no longer relevant.

Up next: Jagged Little Pill- Alanis Morissette (1995)

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