It’s hard to believe that the debut album from The Strokes Is This It? was released fifteen years ago. I remember hearing Last Nite on my local alternative rock station, and being blown away as if I was hearing rock n roll for the first time in twenty years! Mind you, I was just over twenty years old back then, and the song had played right after the most current single from Linkin Park and before something from Sum 41 or something. I mean no disrespect to those particular artists, but you have to understand how stale the music scene had become at that point. A new blend of hard rock and hip-hop had been ushered in by bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, which helped blur lines in the pop world, giving the effect that all music styles had come together in full harmony. Clearly it was not the case.
After a few years, that particular fad began to die and out from the ashes came a new movement of more traditional rock n roll, some called “The ‘The’ bands”. The simple garage rock approach of The White Stripes, the snotty lo-fi, yet stylish antics of The Hives, the Nirvana-esque angst with The Vines, and of course, The Strokes. These bands reminded the world that not all rock music had to be angry and de-tuned. Thanks to some clever marketing with their VHS quality music video for Last Nite, and their nonchalant swagger, The Strokes were poised to give mainstream rock a much needed kick in the pants. Their highly regarded debut album found itself at the top spot of year end Best Of lists, and earned them the bragging rights of being the saviors of rock.
With a title like that, it was inevitable there would be nay-sayers. Despite being the critic’s darlings, many held judgment until their sophomore effort was released. Their success could have been a gimmick laden fluke no different than the nu-metal movement.
During a relentless touring schedule, The Strokes initially enlisted Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich to take the reins of what would become Room On Fire, but after nearly completing album, they decided the songs were sounding a bit too lifeless, they dropped Godrich and went straight back to Is This It?’s producer, Gordon Raphael. With a deadline looming, and pressure from the label to stay on schedule, Raphael and the band managed to re-record, mix and master the album within a few weeks.
Stylistically, Room On Fire shares many of the production cues of it’s predecessor; stop and go song structures, lo-fi percussion mimicking early 80s drum machines, telephone receiver vocals, and layered guitar work. All of which made Is This It? a breath of fresh air as well as an instant classic. Most fans greeted the album with favorable reviews, but a lot of previously grandstanding critics felt that it was a rehash, and void of any fresh ideas.
At first I agreed with those critics. Upon first listen, there isn’t much the album that sets it apart from their debut. I still enjoyed the album but I could easily see where the reviews were coming from. Now that so much time has passed and following albums have been hit or miss, I bought Room On Fire on vinyl and gave it more of a proper listen.
Surprisingly, it holds up well! Underneath the seemingly fresh coat of paint, I was able to see the artistic growth the band had actually experienced. The lyrics were no where near as misogynistic as Is This It? on this go around, and have more of a melancholy element to them. There are hints of regret within the lyrics and maybe even some sadness that shows Julian Casablancas wasn’t just a throw-back rock star wannabe but an actual artist conveying feelings. That’s not to say that the Lou Reed meets Tom Petty vibe was gone, but clearly turned back a few notches to emphasize artist integrity. Even from a musician standpoint, people may have been polarized by the familiarity to even notice the intricate craft behind the compositions. It’s not easy to play songs like Repitilia or Meet Me In The Bathroom without the synergy and honest to goodness chemistry of being in a legitimate band with other artists who get each other, something that may have been missing in their debut.
The albums following albums have been hit and miss with me personally, and I think every fan who gets disappointed with a particular release, find themselves showing Room On Fire a bit more respect. Is This It? may have been an instant classic, but after going back and giving Room On Fire a fair chance without preconceptions, I think it just may be the better record of the two. If you were one of the many people who didn’t give this album a chance way back then, and don’t really care much for the most current releases from The Strokes, I urge you to pick up Room On Fire again. Like me, you will be reminded of why you liked The Strokes to begin with!