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The Strokes
Is This It  [UK Version]
Rough Trade


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 pop stardom?

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 to channel.

(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) desired stardom.

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.

Rating: 7/10
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

Track Listing:

  1. Is This It
  2. The Modern Age
  3. Soma
  4. Barely Legal
  5. Someday
  6. Alone, Together
  7. Last Nite
  8. Hard To Explain
  9. When It Started
  10. Trying Your Luck
  11. Take It Or Leave It

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