The Strokes don't quite light this Room on Fire

Dec. 28, 2003, midnight | By Josh Scannell | 17 years ago

I remember 2001. I remember September 11th wrenched the country out of an innocent slumber, the first year of high school ended, and Is This It came out. Actually, that's about all that I remember from 2001; and as September 11th begins to feel more and more like a terrible nightmare that won't go away, Is This It remains a very real, immediate force in my life. Scarcely a week goes by when I don't listen to that brilliant album that so effortlessly melds Television, the Velvet Underground and the Stooges.

The first album was over-hyped, to be sure. The Strokes didn't save rock ‘n roll, and they're not messiahs or anything close. They're just a rock band that managed to write excellent, compact songs. Their status as major music figures has less to do with their songs and more to do with the fact that the group was ready-made for rock stardom. Five New York kids who get drunk, fight in the streets, and look really pretty can't possibly miss in an industry more focused on marketing than music. All of us who followed the band back when they were playing in Britain were always bracing for the moment they became huge. When it happened, and the group exploded with singles "Last Nite" and "Sometimes," driving Is This It into gold status and attracting hordes of pink halter-top clad sorority girls to sold out Constitution Hall shows, all us die-hard fans could do was sit around and wait (jadedly) for the next album.

Well, here it is. Room on Fire, the band's second album, is essentially Is This It version 2.0. Really, it's a shame that the Strokes didn't release Room On Fire instead of Is This It back in 2001, because the songs on this album are better, the production is better and the group is starting to expand. The problem is that, even with all of this, their sound has barely changed, and this will leave those who don't listen carefully wondering whether they're hearing the first album all over again.

But it's not totally the same. That's clear in the first seconds of the opening track "Whatever Happened." Just listen to the guitar. It sounds…different. It's not distant or distorted at all, and it's on top of a rhythm that a drum machine might have some trouble with. The difference is almost imperceptible, but is infinitely important, and the careful ear will notice. The rest of the song is also slightly un-Strokesian. Julian sings with what sounds like passion, the guitar part leading into the chorus is slightly dissonant, and the lyrics seem quite sincere.

Though Julian grows familiarly aloof by "12:51," guitarists Nick and Albert remain in the foreground,and are clearly trying to expand the sound of their band. Just listen to "12:51"'s synth-like guitar line or the fluty solo on "You Talk Way Too Much." While there isn't much experimentation on this record, there's enough to indicate an expansion of tonal expression in the future. And it's good for the Strokes that the guitars are starting to play differently, because it doesn't seem like the rhythm section is going to change.

On Is This It, Fab and Nikolai played a large part in making the album exciting. "Is This It," that album's opener, had an interesting bassline that was the first thing you noticed. Room On Fire, however, has them taking a backseat to the axemen. It's too bad, really, because the obviously talented pair seem content to remain inconspicuous on some songs that could have used them desperately, such as the floundering "Between Love and Hate."

Most interestingly, the songs on this album are more complicated than those on Is This It. There aren't many of the straightforward "Last Nite"s or "Someday"s, and there are quite a few songs that take their cues from off-beat cuts like "Is This It" or "Hard to Explain." Julian seems to experiment more with writing songs where parts come in and out. The effect is nice. The band tastefully weaves between instruments and has figured out how to build up tension to truly exciting climaxes (listen to the extremely catchy "Reptilia") much more consistently than before.

In the end, Room on Fire has moments of inspiration and indicates possible new directions for the group (the Motown-ish verse to "Under Control," the distorted guitar part and booming toms of "The Way It Is" or the absolutely ‘80s pop of "The End Has No End"). The Strokes did not capitalize on these creative developments, however, and generally employ new ideas for parts of songs instead of using them as themes to build around. It's a pity because, while this album is good, catchy and gives us an idea of what the Strokes may do in the future, it doesn't sound drastically different from the first. It's not a problem per se, but it's not all that they're capable of. And that is disappointing.

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Josh Scannell. Josh Scannell is an 11th grader at Blair High School. He is a page editor on the Silver Chips staff. When not working, he enjoys listening to, reading about, watching and playing music. He also enjoys a good movie and hanging out with his friends. More »

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