For several months, a storm of controversy has swirled about
a single band. One faction has hailed them as the "Saviors
of Rock" while the opposing camp has tagged them as spoiled,
rich brat dilettantes digging up the bones of Bowery
acts that were long-gone before they were even born. The band's
hype-centric marketing strategy has allowed the latter charges
to gain resonance as last-minute record cover changes and
song-substitutions (with attendant out-of-country resurrections)
were accompanied by increasingly lame excuses and rationales.
Whether it was a sincere change of heart or a crass ploy to
increase marketability is debatably, but it still looked dubious
for a band that seemed to wear it's "cred" as an all-access
pass to Rock Valhalla.
Every step of their meteoric rise has been dutifully reported
by a pliant press, desperate to write about something that
isn't wearing a backwards red baseball cap, or the bidding
war between the major labels frantic not to be the one that
let "the Next Big Thing get away." These were the highlights
of the jaded music Industry(tm)'s spring. Music fans just
wanted something that wasn't the same old same old polluting
the airwaves and killing their souls.
As time marched on it became time to for The Strokes
to either deliver the goods or get the hell out of the papers.
Judgment day came this week as the US release of Is This
It (this review is of the UK version that includes "NYC
Cops"), and the questions are:
1. Is the record any good?
2. Is the band for real?
3. Will they cross over from hipster cult status to mainstream
The short answers are: a qualified yes, maybe and probably
not (but for a good reason).
Any record that comes with such an oppressive wall of adulation
is to be immediately suspected because not even The Beatles
pulled down this uniform tongue bath of praise--and we know
what they went on to accomplish. But hype is a two-edged sword
because while it can boost anticipation, if the goods aren't
there then it will provide the kindling for the bonfire of
their ignominy. Fortunately for The Strokes, the album is
a solid chunk of tasty NYC punk that acquits the band nicely
in the songwriting department but also brings up some questions
about their goals and ambitions due to a serious misjudgment
in the record's production values.
Side note: I'm not an authority on all the mid-70s NY bands,
and this probably works in the band's favor since I don't
have the background to spot if they're ripping off songs wholesale.
So I have to listen to them like the vast majority of Americans
will--with darn little history of what they're attempting
(A friend who DOES know the genre positively hated them
as being "worse than lame copycats, they're BORING, lame copycats").
The key test of songwriting sturdiness is the "stickiness"
of the basic parts of the song: melody, rhythms, dynamics.
You may not know the words but if you find yourself humming
a tune at unexpected times, then it's stuck and I'd rather
have "NYC Cops", "Barely Legal", "Someday" and a majority
of the songs here echoing in my head then Staind's
"It's Been A While". Several songs have really cool changes
between the parts and the Alone we stand/Together we fall
apart line from "Someday" is the best example of reshaping
a simple phrase since U2's "Walk On". (A place that
has to be believed to be seen) Not all the songs hit these
heights, and a few don't quite catch fire but nothing outright
sucks, begging for the track skip button, so the killer-to-filler
ratio is quite good.
So, if the songs are tight (if derivative), what's the problem?
In short: The production...and therein lies the rub. If The
Strokes are supposed to challenge the top of the pops, there
are certain accepted "standards" of production that have to
be met by ALL bands looking to get into the Big Show (radio,
TV) and the choice to be militantly "left of the dial" old-school
retro in it's quality is a direct obstacle to the (assumed)
If they were a cult-genre band like White Stripes
or Slumber Party and were on a Sympathy For The
Record Industry or Kill Rock Stars-level label
and were only getting covered in Magnet and AP,
this wouldn't be as much of an issue because the standards
are different, with more leeway in the lo-fi and no-fi genres.
But they aren't going for the Kings of the Underworld crown,
the Strokes are being advertised as the band that going to
get people to forget about nu-metal, boy bands, Mouskabimbos
and any band that's ever used ProTools. Nice shiny, happy
thoughts for their acolytes, but totally kidding themselves
at the same time.
Front and center in the strategic blunder department was
the decision to run singer Julian Casablanca's vocals
through an effect similar to an overdriven tube limiter. While
this can be an effective way to heighten the drama of a vocal
(e.g. Our Lady Peace--"Star Seed"), here it's left
on permanently to apparently provide character to an otherwise
average voice. The monotony of the effect starts to glaze
over the strengths of the songs and at it's worst ("Hard To
Explain") it squashes the vocal down to the sound of an asthmatic
mosquito blaring through a half-watt transistor radio with
dying batteries turned up full blast. If it was meant to create
a distance between the singer and listener, it worked...by
putting the listener waaaaaaaaaay outside of the songs. Some
of the songs would've benefited from a more intimate natural
sound, but whether he has the vocal chops to pull it off is
unknown based on this record.
The rest of the production is minimalist and raw and while,
once again, this may've been OK for an indie act, it's anathema
for the Big Five and I'm at a loss as to how RCA thought
they were going to break this band with this record in America.
This does NOT mean that the public is "stupid" or too narrow
to accept things that sound "different". (Anyone for some
Cake?) But in today's Clear Channeled narrow-cast
world, it's going to take a lot of money to buy this one on
the airwaves. Being cute isn't going to hurt them either,
but the brace-faced mallrat TRL girlies are not going
to go all goofy on a pack of drunk guys making out with each
other, no matter what Rolling Stone says that means
for their masculinity.
Also, it should be noted to all aspiring bands out there
who may be just as good as The Strokes who think that the
shackles of quality production have be cast off the struggling
musicians and that they are free to send THEIR basement demos
into the major labels.... STOP!!!! This does NOT apply to
you. Unless you've got sufficient blue-blood and silver spoon
points, you aren't going to get more than 20 seconds before
you're round-filed. (Just like before.) Sorry. That's life.
In the end, I think that Is This It is definitely
NOT going to the Nevermind that the band's fervent
zealots rant it's going to be, BUT it could be their Bleach.
The wrong-headed decision to try to launch a Sub-Pop-quality
record with a Geffen-sized PR assault may backfire
and cripple a band that may have some real solid potential.
IF (and it's too late now) RCA had parked the band on some
fake-indie farm club label for this release to establish a
core fan base (sort of the way the Smashing Pumpkins
were allowed to develop on Caroline) in the indie scene
OUTSIDE NYC and then come back with a follow-up album with
REAL production values (provided the songwriting stayed up
to snuff), then they could have something really substantial.
But, RCA showed it's marketing incompetence yet again and
may both cost the label money and the band a real career run.
(Provided they are truly serious about this or won't just
shirk it off as a youthful goof.)
If Is This It had been decently recorded and sung
normally AND had the name Oasis on the front, it'd
be the best album THAT band had done since What's The Story
Morning Glory. But it's not and while I'd rather listen
to The Strokes over 98% of what's on the charts today, the
misgivings I have over the production and marketing make me
hesitant to predict what the future has in store for the poor
little rich boys. It's a good, but frustrating debut. I hope
that they stop trying to be something that doesn't exist and
just let the music do the talking without the machinery getting
in the way.
RIYL: Left of the dial garage-pop and old-school Max's
KC music. Bottom line: Not as good as the hype (NO ONE is
that good!) but overall a decent, if critically flawed, effort
from a band that MAY someday become half as good at their
reputation proclaims them to be.
— Dirk Belligerent
- Is This It
- The Modern Age
- Barely Legal
- Alone, Together
- Last Nite
- Hard To Explain
- When It Started
- Trying Your Luck
- Take It Or Leave It
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