Jake Robinson: This Is It, The Return Of The Strokes

Posted on March 26, 2013

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The turn of the millennium appeared to be a bleak landscape for guitar-orientated rock music. The previous decade may have seen the dramatic Nirvana-inspired rise of grunge, but just a few years later this movement appeared to peter out. The Britpop scene had fallen off a cliff with its main proponent, Oasis, falling further down a chemically-induced wallow in indulgence; and the supposed great saviours of British guitar rock, Radiohead, had taken a bizarre left turn into the realm of loops, samples and synths. Across the Atlantic, the wave of alt-rock bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth and Neutral Milk Hotel had been usurped by nu-metal bands Korn, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park—who in turn appeared to be the only challenge to the bevy of DJ’s and pop stars eking out chart hits. Boy bands *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys were in the midst of their global dominance; and in an underground volcano lair, Simon Cowell was distilling the eyes of newts and virgin’s blood into the Pop Idol formula.

It was a bleak, unforgiving world for the lovers of the six-string pop songs that had enthralled the world since Elvis chucked on his blue suede shoes. And yet, when we look back at the past thirteen years, there has been an incredible resurgence in guitar-driven pop. While by no means banishing the manufactured spectre of formulated radio filler, the guitar was given a small breath of life into the narrative of its terminal decline. And one band—more specifically one album—had a greater influence over this story then any other.

The Strokes released Is This It on the cusp of the so-called “post garage-punk revival” of the turn of the millennium. With bands such as the White Stripes, the Rapture and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this movement melded the raw ethos of punk with a refined sense of musical craftsmanship and style. Is This It became more than just a collection of great songs: it was one of those rare efforts that is representative of the culture that spawned it.

Julian Casablancas’s lyrics of youthful existentialism seemed to hit that rare nerve which touches the very thought patterns of a generation. The social confusion of “Hard to Explain”, the wistful “Someday” and the one-night stand of “Last Nite” became the soundtrack to every youthful misadventure—all summed up with the simple title, Is This It. The lack of punctuation seemed to suggest this was not a question, but a resigned statement.

The Strokes’s stroke of genius, “Is This It”.

And in the Strokes’s wake came waves of like-minded axe-wielding alternative bands: Kings of Leon, the Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Vines, the Hives, the Killers and Arctic Monkeys. The Strokes’s influence extended not just to grimy, grit-propelled guitar riffs and distorted vocal howls, but from the fashion trends it reignited. Black skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors were back in vogue. The Strokes laid down the template for the 21st century indie guitar rock that persists to this very day. It seemed like the new millennium had reignited the public fascination in the repressive coolness of swaggering guitar pop.

While the Strokes have never released a bad album, they have also never quite repeated that brush of genius that was Is This It. All their subsequent releases have included moments of jaw-dropping awesomeness; songs such as “Reptilia”, “Juicebox” and “Taken For a Fool” are as catchy and raucous as any tune in their earlier repertoire, but the LP collections have not matched up as a collective whole.

The Strokes’s new album, “Comedown Machine”.

Comedown Machine might not rival their first effort, but the strange alchemy that went into producing Is This It may never be repeated. What we are left with is a fine collection of pop songs that reinforces the Strokes’s ability to evolve their sound, while still sounding like the Strokes. “Tap Out” and lead single “All the Time” are the Strokes back to their rocking best; with forceful riffs, poppy chorus and searing guitar solos, these songs could have been included in any Strokes album of the past decade.

The forerunner for the album’s release, “One Way Trigger”, radically divided fans into those who loved the manic shrillness and those aghast at the falsetto (almost disco) lines. I belong firmly in the former camp; the song boasts the best melodic hooks on the album, the opening guitar riff spindles across the thumping of the rhythm section, and Julian Casablancas’s vocals build into a beautiful crescendo that reveals a simple honesty and tenderness.

Further down the track list, solid contributions “Welcome to Japan”, “50 50” and “Partners in Crime” also exhibit signs of the classic formula. The more potentially divisive songs for the long-term Strokes fanatic happen to be, for me at least, the most interesting. Casablancas reverts to the hushed falsetto vocals on “Slow Animals” and “Chances”, the former is possibly the most beautifully tender moment the band has ever produced. The gypsy carnival atmosphere of the album’s closer, “Call it Fate Call it Karma”, is as weird as the Strokes have ever allowed themselves to get, all hushed falsetto and creaking chords atop a sparse, drum-free backing.

Perhaps we should give up any hope that whatever rare wind elevated the Strokes to defy gravity shall ever lift their wings again. Is This It sounded like a record flung directly out of a forgotten decade at warp speed from five precocious New Yorkers, and yet it came to define an era of music history. Every subsequent album has seemed a throwback to that heady time of 2001. Comedown Machine feels like the first time the Strokes have been perfectly happy to love in the now—with a musical output to match.

Jake Robinson is You’re Dripping Egg’s music writer. His column, Stereo In A Forest, is released every second Tuesday.

Six-string fans, sing out about the Strokes and “Comedown Machine” in the comments

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