Different Strokes?

  • All five members of The Strokes appear to have studiously avoided wandering under a showerhead since birth. Yet in photographs they never fail to appear devastatingly stylish, like a bunch of Bowery James Bonds. This poseurship is just one of the reasons it takes immense critical discipline not to hate them. The Strokes' effortlessness is pure fiction; not since the Velvet Underground met Andy Warhol has a band so effectively been art directed to achieve the look of not having been art directed. But when you hear the Strokes, that cultivated cool disperses with every passing guitar chord, and suddenly, just by listening, you're cool too. That's how good their melodies are.

    The Strokes' first album, 2001's Is This It, contains 11 aggressively simple songs about love, sex and getting drunk in the boho paradise of New York City's East Village. For their follow-up, Room on Fire, out Oct. 28, they retained the services of producer Gordon Raphael. While some may view Raphael's presence as a retreat to the familiar, it feels more like an assertion of identity. The Strokes look like bohemians, but they're actually formalists; their form is the three-minute, verse-chorus-verse rock song, and once again they offer up 11 of the best you will hear this year. The band toys with some clever rhythm changes and guitar effects, and the lyrics tend to be more about failed relationships than casual hook-ups, but the boys are not exactly reinventing the medium. Why bother when you have more or less perfected it?

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    The album opens with lead singer Julian Casablancas proclaiming of an ex, "I want to be forgotten/And I don't want to be reminded." Casablancas has a world-weariness that would ordinarily be suspicious in a 25-year-old. He is the son of model magnate John Casablancas, but a study of his DNA would probably reveal more of a family connection to Holden Caulfield. The lyrics on Room on Fire that stick with you--"You are young, darling/For now but not for long," "Kiss me now that I'm older"--smack of premature angst, but Casablancas sells it well.

    He sounds genuinely bored through a solid 75% of Room on Fire; at one point he even advises, "Don't sing along with me." But most cynics turn out to be romantics, and at the critical three-quarter point of every song — the moment just before the bridge, when a song's soul is revealed — Casablancas turns out to be a believer. On tracks like What Ever Happened? and Automatic Stop his voice rises, the words get clearer and for a moment he aches in a surprisingly moving way. With his half-closed eyes and half-closed heart, Casablancas is the closest thing there is to a rock-'n'-roll Bogart.

    While the lead singer is emoting, or not, the band is grooving with a ruthless efficiency. Is This It was criticized for mining riffs from Television, the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop, and there's no ignoring the influences when drummer Fabrizio Moretti (also known as Drew Barrymore's boyfriend; I told you there were many reasons to hate these guys) bangs out a snare fill that would make the Zeppelins' John Bonham bolt upright in his grave. But the Strokes don't agonize over their influences; they synthesize them. And songs like 12:51 and Between Love & Hate add up to more than the sum of their stolen parts because the group is so tight. Moretti is a much more confident drummer this time out, while bassist Nikolai Fraiture thumps along with surprising soul, and Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. form one of the most complementary guitar duos in rock. Best of all, no one hogs the spotlight. Each player has the skills to stand out, but mostly you come away remembering the group's seamlessness.

    Room on Fire reaches its peak with the tender midtempo ballad Under Control. It opens with Moretti's Zeppelin trick, takes off on Hammond's buoyant lead strumming and moves with the melodic sashay of a Bob Marley hit. Over the top of it all is Casablancas, going on about a relationship, of course. He sings, "I don't want to change your mind/I don't want to change the world/I just want to watch it go by." And if the Strokes want to look good doing it? I suppose that's excusable.