The opposite of that, it turned out, was to capture a tightly knit musical unit playing live, all in one room, committing it to tape with a fuzzy and nostalgic analog warmth. The Strokes did take after take of each song until they got one in which they all played extraordinarily; they toyed with microphone placements to give the drums the right distorted, almost machinelike feel; they twisted knobs on their guitar amps until each tone was just right. And to the band’s eternal credit, they fought hard to preserve this neo-vintage sound—very much against the wishes of their new bosses at RCA, who thought they were committing career suicide by over-muddling the mix.
Once Is This It finally landed in America (its release here had to be delayed so the band could replace the blistering—and not exactly flattering—“New York City Cops” after 9/11), the response was immediate and seismic. There were plenty of rave reviews, naturally, as critics marveled at the young band’s astonishing confidence and the record’s clockwork efficiency. But more amazing by far was the great rumbling tremor that Is This It sent through the music industry itself, a change so desperately needed that the Strokes should be considered humanitarians. At the time, remember, bands such as (brace yourself) Limp Bizkit, Staind, Slipknot, and Linkin Park—along with a heavy dose of Creed—absolutely dominated the rock charts. With one sweep of their Chuck Taylors, the Strokes kicked the nu-metal blight to the curb, clearing the way for other garage-influenced bands like the White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and spawning many imitators, among them Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers.
And just as these groups continue to try to sound like the Strokes, they’re still trying to look like them as well. Whatever you thought of the band’s sound, there was no questioning their effortless cool, and it wasn’t long before admiring designers like Hedi Slimane caught on and began peddling skinny jeans first to rockers and fashionistas, and then to the rest of us. Take a look at the 2001 video for the Strokes tune “Someday”—in which the boys pal around a dive bar in their tight jeans, vintage shirts, and denim jackets—and just try to tell me that it couldn’t double as a documentary about hipsters in 2011.
Yet even if Is This It hadn’t influenced the last decade’s look and sound so profoundly, it would remain that rarest of musical artifacts: a truly great album. Early profiles of the Strokes often noted that the band, in the words of Rolling Stone’s Jenny Eliscu, “display[ed] a loyalty fiercer than that of most lovers,” and this cohesion shines through in every note of Is This It; the album captures the sound of five guys playing as one. For all the griping about the Strokes’ lack of innovation, their emotional commitment was never a question. You can hear it in the mournful urgency of “Trying Your Luck,” the good-time vibes of “Someday,” the heartsick vocal shredding of “Take It or Leave It.” Listening to Is This It feels, to this very day, like sharing a moment of lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance in some dark basement studio with five friends. Well, five extraordinarily good-looking friends who would emasculate you with their galling, starlet-attracting cool—but, still, friends.
Which, incidentally, is why the Strokes’ most recent record, this year’s Angles, is so depressing. The once-inseparable quintet grew so far apart over time that Casablancas didn’t even record his parts with the band (he literally mailed the entire album in), and the end result lacked almost all Strokesean spark—much like 2006’s equally uninspired First Impressions of Earth. Strangely, the best music to come out of these former rock saviors since the underrated Room on Fire in 2003 is the eponymously titled Little Joy, the unexpectedly charming side project of drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Like DJ Shadow, who recently released yet another critically dismissed follow-up to his legendary Endtroducing..., the Strokes seem doomed never to live up to their outstanding debut.
Then again, no one else has made anything as good as Is This It in the last 10 years either. And while a God who loves his creation will surely see to it that young men won’t be wearing skinny jeans and attending Killers concerts another decade from now, they’ll still be listening to—and loving—Is This It. They might mistake the Strokes for a band from the mid-’70s, but they’ll be listening.