It's been a storybook year for the Strokes. Like Jimi Hendrix, the scruffy New York City quintet broke big in England before returning home to near-hysterical buzz for their debut, Is This It, which also perched atop many year-end best-of lists. They've been name-checked in songs by Courtney Love and Sonic Youth, and even inspired a tribute band (the Diff'rent Strokes). Not bad for a group that's released less than 45 minutes worth of music and must now shake off the hype (and its backlash) weighing heavily on their shaggy and tousled heads.
Though not deserving of the orgiastic accolades or even their reigning status as Next Big Thing (sorry, Strokers -- it should have been the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), the band has delivered a solid, frequently exciting record. Is This It is punchy, straightforward New York street rock thankfully undiluted by any other genre. From the hard pop-with-punch of "Someday" and "Last Nite" to more layered sonic bursts of "Soma," "When It Started" and "Take It or Leave It," the band uses familiar sounds to create its own music rather than just aping what's come before. The easy comparison is Iggy and the Stooges and CBGB-era punk, but listen closely and you'll also hear the Bobby Fuller Four buried in the mix -- only slightly deeper than singer Julian Casablancas's vocals.
Casablancas relies too heavily on the vocal effects box, but there's passion in even his deadpan delivery (punctuated by the occasional unexpected shriek). The real power of the Strokes comes in the cohesiveness of its instrumentalists: Nick Valensi (guitar), Albert Hammond Jr. (guitar), Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Fab Moretti (drums). The count-off to each number is like the start of some twisted Easter egg hunt, with each member dashing about frantically to fill each hidden pocket of space with their sound, and then building upon each other in multiple levels and shifting rhythms that somehow remain tethered together. This side of the Strokes is appreciated only after giving the record a number of listens, but it's worth the discovery.
That fact that the Strokes will take the stage of the Aerial Theater rather than a club for their Houston debut is intriguing. Somebody seems confident -- in this rock and roll version of the board game Risk -- that they can turn on the rest of the country like they have the coasts. Hopefully the Strokes will trumpet a real "return of the rock," one that slams the door on screeching rap-rockers, pious poseurs and bands led by "tor-mented" singers with clean-shaven heads.
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