Album review: “Is This It” by The Strokes

There is probably not to much to say about this, rather acclaimed, album that has not been said already, but it has been an important album for me, so I figured I share my perspective on it.  I tend to think of the late 1990s and early 2000s as a very angry or angsty time for popular music.  At least most of the new stuff I was hearing at the time fit that bill.  I tend to think specifically of the time period, between the just prior to the September 11th attacks.  Frustrated suburban high school age kids, were a demographic that was getting a lot of media attention, and a lot of money was going into promoting music that appealed to them.

It was the height of the Nu Metal era, Korn, Limp Bizkit and many of their imitators hit big with angry heavy, simplistic rock (with no solos).  Linkin Park and Staind had taken this formula and made it even whinier, and more suburban sounding.  In a lot of ways it was a bad time, musically.  Grunge had died years back and the most popular old standbys, included groups with a nu metal-like appeal, such as Tool, Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails.  Outside the Rock genre, Eminem was everywhere, successfully marketing hip hop that also appealed to the angry young white guy demographic.  The only readily visible alternatives to angst where the toilet-humor infested, pop punk of Blink 182 and their imitators, the religious throat yodelling of Creed, or the legions of disposable boy bands that were coming out.  I, like any intelligent person, hated all that shit!!!

It was towards the end of this era (July 30th of 2001 to be exact) that The Strokes broke onto the scene with their debut album “Is This It” and breathed new life into the rock Genre.  The Strokes sounded different.   They were from New York and sounded unbelievable cosmopolitan.  Rather than complaining about their lousy childhoods, like so many other bands at the time, The Strokes’ lyrics documented the lives of urban 20 somethings having fun, entering short lived romantic flings, getting burned out and surviving to do it all again.   Singer Julian Casablancas does this with an irreverent, casual  and often detached manner that captures the essence of cool.

Meanwhile the rest of the band forgoes the heavy riffing  and pounding that was selling big at the time, and presents a series of steady beats, interlocking guitar patterns (Provided by Albert Hammond Jr. and & Nick Valensi), and jangling rhythms that hark back to 60’s garage rock and new wave bands of the late sixties and early eighties.  Much of the music feels like a very modernized bastard child of The Velvet Underground and The Cars, only with guitar hooks that have more in common with the New York punk scene pioneers, Television than either of these.  This was a band that sounded like it knew its way around the record store and was hip to the finer points of their musical heritage, but presented classic sounds, in a way that was fresh and uniquely their own.

The Album kicks of with the surprisingly slow title track, in which Casablancas asks “Can’t you seem I’m trying, I don’t even like it?, I just lied to get to your apartment”.  The reflecting a cool, yet burned out, and ethically questionable tone of life that characterizes much of the album.  The chorus of the song asks “Is this it?”, reflecting high the high anticipation that surrounded this release in the music community, after the band’s debut EP caused a major stir.  The Modern Age features, a faster guitar rhythm, a subtly bluesy solo and lyrics about that include “ In the sunshine having fun, it’s in my blood”.

“Someday” and “Last Nite” feature some of the finest pop hooks of the last few decades mixed with jangling danceable guitar leads.  “Hard to Explain” features a guitar hook with a strange video game like quality and laments “I say the wrong things, but act the right way”.   Songs like “Trying your Luck” have a subtle yet clear reggae influence, while the albums closer “Take it or Leave it” has a high energy sound that also digs at the hype surrounding the release of this relative short and raw album.

The production is considerably lean.  There is no sign of studio enhancements in the way any of the instruments’ sound and Julian’s vocals sound like they were recorded on the cheapest microphone available.  Additionally the drumming is often straightforward and repetitive, like that provided by a drum machine.  All this combines to make a strong statement about how good raw simplistic rock and roll music can be if you let it.

The music on this record is so catchy, hooky and solid that the listener is left more than willing to excuse the privileged upbring of some of the bands members and the almost intentionally bare bones feel, and the fact that this album was preceded by the biggest record company bidding war in the history of rock. On top of this the listener is left with little choice but to admit that the occasionally self-serving and distant attitude conveyed in the vocals and lyrics, actually serves to make the album sound cooler.

Also of note, the original cover of the album featured a rather side view of a woman’s nude buttocks being caressed by a black leather glove, in a manner, possibly suggestive of Spinal Tap’s fictitious album Smell the Glove.  This image created controversy and was replaced by an image from a particle accelerator, on copies sold in the American market.  Julian Casablancas reportedly prefered the particle accelerator image and wanted it to appear with the album globally.  Additionally the song New York City Cops only appears on does not appear on the US version of the album, as it was removed in light of the September 11th attacks the NYPD’s role in rescuing the victims of it.
This album would go on to spark many imitators of varying quality and trigger the 2000s wave of garage rock, reinvigorating the genre in a manner similar to the Nirvana’s Nevermind, ten years earlier.  It was a fun refreshing release during a time in which most new rock music getting played was sounding stale.  The Strokes followed “Is This It” with comparable “Room on Fire” and then a string of more polarizing releases (all of which have moments I enjoy), but in my opinion they have never match the quality of this release, which greatly expanded my understanding of the potential of rock and roll music.

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