When the Strokes surfaced in early 2001, word reached many Americans before the music. The English press moved first, somersaulting over each other to praise the band and touch the hem of their jeans. Then, perhaps to balance the ship, an equal number of stateside listeners pegged them as lottery winners, conservative bricoleurs, or well-connected fashion plates. When The Modern Age EP arrived, the songs were outnumbered by the commentaries. The hype elevated the Strokes above thousands of other bands and created an excitement that was its own reward, but it also made the music pretty hard to hear.
I decided to leave the records alone and see them live. Standing in the crush at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom in October of 2001, I was ready to fall in step with the fans and love the band. The Strokes came out with their game-show backdrop and Converse sneakers. The crowd responded with the white noise of love that makes any band seem like the greatest band ever for about 15 seconds. And then the 15 seconds were over.
Or, they sucked by a certain set of metrics. Their sound was unpleasant but not aggressive enough to cut. They weren't sweating out epiphanies or teasing sound from the ether. They were just there, using a fraction of the stage we'd paid for. The band members hit their instruments without any visible commitment, like they had to return them to the rental company at the end of the night. DO SOMETHING, I thought, and walked out after 20 minutes.
This, though, is when I began to like the Strokes. What read as substandard goods were too consistent to be a mistake. The sound of the album was the sound of the stage show was the sound of their single "Last Nite" cutting through the chatter in a bar. Instead of representing a bad version of something else, the Strokes' internal logic suggested that songwriter Julian Casablancas was being deliberate.
The cardboard-box drums, middling fidelity, monochromatic eighth-note thrum, vocals coming over an intercom—these strategies all reject the big-budget sound many bands save their pennies for. The Strokes melt their songs down to a single sound, as if trying to recapture the fury of '60s mono recordings. The White Stripes are fellow travelers in the art of using smallness to achieve bigness. Both bands consciously reject clean, modern recordings, but the White Stripes are two people trying to sound like a hundred. The Strokes are five people who want to sound like one. It makes sense: Ditch marginal details, and you're left with a single stream of data. The songs will function more like conversation and less like the classic-rock imitation of an orchestra.
How does this work, exactly? Casablancas' vocals distort slightly, honking at the edge of the mix and blending into the guitars. (It worked for John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana: further evidence of diligent note-taking.) Raising the bass a little higher than the average rock record, and dropping the drums a bit lower, the Strokes have a template that you can ID within seconds. The eighth-note down-stroke of the bass and guitars is the DNA of this template. If that's a bit technical for you, just listen to the opening of "Reptilia" from Room on Fire. You'll hear bassist Nikolai Fraiture going doo doo doo doo doo—those are eighth notes, and that's what the guitars do much of the time, too. It's that punk rock thing, the grid the Ramones used to rebuild New York. Or think of a band like Stereolab, who wrote songs for years around a single drone. ("The Way It Is" from Room on Fire starts as a straight Stereolab homage before switching gears.) Musical tropes like the ostinato and drones are canny, simultaneously invoking the choral sound of the human voice and the blank backdrop of a scrim. The big washy sound comforts, but there's plenty of room left over to frame a guiding melody. Yeah—somebody thought about this engine.
Much has been made of the bands the Strokes have borrowed from—the Cars, Television, Tom Petty. The Strokes are hardly alone in such borrowing—see Gang of Four copyists the Rapture and the Liars—but theirs is different in both kind and quantity. Before any quotes pop up, Strokes songs sound like Strokes songs, the way Police songs sound like the Police, even if there are bits of reggae stranded in the gelatin. The guitars, heard here in "Automatic Stop," and also in "Between Love & Hate," are reggae only if, for instance, you think the Police sound like reggae. (The clothes, though, are stolen. Blondie is too nice to ask for them back.)
Casablancas' vocals are stronger and weirder this time around, but the lyrics don't tell us much about him. He's the bystander at the debauch, being pursued, consoling and doing most of his thinking after last call. This makes Casablancas an MC in the cabaret sense (as you can hear in the song "12:51"), the player who sets the scene and watches the action from the cash register. His distorted croon rides the drunken jitters well.
But is anything, anywhere on fire? As functional and smart as this record is, the Strokes' bets are still too hedged. Their Lego pieces are perfectly stacked, but there's very little risk in the whole game. Room on Fire is a hard record to hate. But it's also hard to love. Can I imagine bringing a few songs home? Sure. (And God bless anyone who puts out a 33-minute album. Better to let the band bone the fish before bringing it to the table.) If you can, track down the live bootleg recording of their storied live performance at England's Reading Festival in 2002 floating around the Internet. As the set winds down, the band plays "Last Nite." You hear the crowd let loose in one big voice, like an enormous pub, making the band irrelevant as they sing. Simple machines often outlast their inventors.