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This is it
The Strokes match Is This It with Room on Fire

One thing’s for sure when it comes to the Strokes: they know their rock history. On their new single, "12:51," NYC’s hip hitmakers take a breezy trip back to the new-wave ’80s of the Cars and the avant-rock ’90s of Sonic Youth. The Sonic Youth allusion pops up halfway through the song, when frontman Julian Casablancas mimics Kim Gordon’s husky vocal delivery on the SY tune "Bull in the Heather." The Cars influence pervades the entire track, from the insistent handclaps to the cheery guitar melodies hovering an octave above Casablancas. The band stop short of breaking into a monster chorus like the one from this year’s other great new-wave nostalgia move, the Fountains of Wayne smash "Stacy’s Mom." But like all Strokes singles, "12:51" just about starts its own dance party.

Over the phone from Detroit, with the Strokes in the midst of a month-long North American tour that will hit Tsongas Arena in Lowell next Friday, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. says the distinctive synth-like licks played by guitarist Nick Valensi on "12:51" were a happy accident. "When we were first playing that song, it was missing something. One day when we were in the studio, we came back from lunch and Nick forgot to put his tone control back on. When he hit the distortion, I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s that? You should always use that!’ It’s a fun song. It’s a song you listen to before you go out."

Or maybe, as both the title and Casablancas’s signature garble suggest, "12:51" is a song you listen to while you’re already out, at that frantic moment when you’re gathering up the troops and deciding where to go next. In the video, the boys forsake the nightlife in favor of a sound-stage performance straight out of the ’80s sci-fi flick Tron. Like all of their videos, it was directed by Roman Coppola. "We were thinking about Tron, and we were also thinking about having a video where we’re playing, not just acting," Hammond explains. "We told Roman we wanted to mix those two concepts. We enjoy working with him because all of us together end up producing something better than if we had done it alone, or if we had done it with someone who doesn’t want to hear any suggestions. And he gets very good shots."

"12:51" is the first single from the eagerly awaited new Strokes album, Room on Fire (RCA), which will hit stores this Tuesday, October 28. It’s been two years since the release of their debut, Is This It, which took MTV and rock radio by storm with the hits "Last Nite," "Someday," and "Hard To Explain." Released right after September 11, the disc ushered in a new era of mainstream cool that neatly coincided with the decline of teen pop and rap metal. It didn’t quite chase Linkin Park off the airwaves. But it did pave the way for the platinum success of the White Stripes, and it also helped push NYC modern-rockers like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol (Jonathan Perry’s review of Interpol’s appearance last week at Avalon is in "Live and on Record," on page 25) into the limelight. The Strokes will play songs from the new album every Tuesday in November on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Is This It received a rapturous welcome from the rock press, who looked at the Strokes’ Manhattan address and immediately started to compare them with two of the biggest critics’ bands of all time: the Velvet Underground and Television. Which is fair enough given Casablancas’s haughty Lou Reed pose and a twin-guitar shimmer from Valensi and Hammond that recalls both bands. But you don’t get a gold album by appealing to Velvet Underground fans, and to me the Strokes are more contemporary than people give them credit for. They even acknowledged their debt to the indie-rock ’90s by challenging Guided by Voices to a friendly game of Family Feud in the "Someday" video.

"Don’t you always learn from the past? We look at everything," Hammond insists. "We go back as far as old jazz in the 1920s, blues in the 1960s and 1970s. Guided by Voices to me is just as meaningful as someone from the 1960s. When it can surpass time and still be listened to 40 years later, there’s got to be a reason. You’ve got to be like, ‘Hey, I should hear what they’re doing. Even if I don’t like it, maybe there’s something there, you know? People still talk about it and the guys are dead.’ "

Even though the Strokes toured the world for the first time when Is This It came out, the youthful energy of Room on Fire doesn’t stray too far from that of its predecessor. After an aborted session with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the band went into the studio with Gordon Raphael, the one-time Seattle college-rocker who also produced their first album. Both discs were tracked in Manhattan’s East Village, but this time the group moved out of the makeshift studio that yielded Is This It and into the professional confines of TMF Studios.

The Strokes run a pretty tight-knit organization for a band their size: they give buddy J.P. Bowersock sixth-member status by calling him "guru" in their album credits, and when it comes to arranging the music, the guys work closely with sole songwriter Casablancas. "Every song has its own way that it gets finished," Hammond reveals. "Julian writes the songs, and we all kind of sit there and arrange them and discuss like, ‘You know, it gets really boring there. Should we do that?’ Afterward, he’ll take it home and he’ll have more of an idea of what needs to go with it. When you mix it with five people, it’s not the same as playing it acoustically."

"12:51" should give fans a good idea of what to expect from Room on Fire: it’s short, sweet, and concerned more with ear candy than with deep thoughts. "What Ever Happened?" starts things off with a friendly electric charge and an ironic plea from Casablancas: "I wanna be forgotten." On the disco-fied "Automatic Stop," he gets a little pissy: "Wait/I’m not gonna give you a break/I’m not your friend/I never was." The hooks aren’t always immediate, but the grooves are. Valensi and Hammond create their best Sonic Youth–style guitar orchestra to date on the stormy "Reptilia," which even makes room for a slashing solo turn. Throughout the disc, their coolly intertwined parts share the spotlight with Casablancas’ oft-distorted vocals. According to Hammond, the division of labor between the two guitarists is very democratic. "Nick and I play guitar differently, and there’s no ego involved in what we’re doing. He gets crazier solos, but I like it — it turns me on when he plays. And there’s a lot of times when we don’t have solos and I do more of the melody line."

Casablancas’s sneer gets increasingly literal as the album goes on: there are a lot of Ramones-style "I don’t wanna" refrains, and the titles say it all on "You Talk Way Too Much" and "The End Has No End." But though the disc barely eclipses the half-hour mark, the band find plenty of room for experimentation. The biggest departure is "Under Control," the first ballad in the Strokes’ catalogue. It’s a promising start, even if Casablancas is careful not to get too heartfelt on the chorus: "I don’t wanna do it your way."

"When you’re in a rock band," Hammond asserts, "the biggest thing is, ‘Can we be as soulful as some of the great musicians?’ You always fail, but it’s fun to try. We’ve never had a song like that before. It’s kind of relaxing, you can put it on before you go to bed. As opposed to the first record, where the last thing you’re going to do is go to bed when you put that on."

On "The Way It Is," the band launch into a grimy Stooges riff that quickly gives way to a bouncy dance groove. But wait — that’s drummer Fabrizio Moretti you hear on the track, not programmed beats. "We made the drums sound like a drum machine," Hammond says. "We do that quite a bit. It was so hard to achieve, because we wanted Fab to play it, but we also wanted this certain sound. It’s fun trying to find a sound, because you push everyone’s boundaries — the producer, the engineer, the band. We sat there for eight hours looking for the drum sound on ‘The End Has No End.’ But when we finally got it right, it was the best feeling in the world."

In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether you think the Strokes are heirs to the legacy of the Velvet Underground, the belated commercial validation of indie rock’s last decade, a hot new boy band, or all of the above. Chances are their tunes — from the charismatic pout of "Last Nite" to Room on Fire’s dreamy finale, "I Can’t Win" — will put a smile on your face and some spring in your step. "Guess I’ll be right back," sings Casablancas at the end of the disc as the band come to an abrupt stop. As usual, he sounds as if he were being sarcastic, but here’s hoping he’s not.

The Strokes perform next Friday, October 31, at Tsongas Arena in Lowell; call (978) 848-6900.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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