Only their hairdressers and Backstage Pass know for sure, but this is how I bet it went down: One night, early in the sessions for their second album, the Strokes retired to singer Julian Casablancas’ apartment to listen to some rough mixes. The mood was festive, and the Old Milwaukee was flowing, but once Julian hitplay, the lads knew something was amiss. After a few awkward moments, one of them — Nikolai, Fabrizio, Fandango, whoever –looked up from the foosball table and said, “Dudes, we got ahead of ourselves. Working with (Radiohead producer) Nigel (Godrich) was a great idea, but we should save him for our Challenging Third Album. We forgot to make our Pressure-Reliving Second Album!”
Room On Fire, completed with producer Gordon Raphael, who helmed their 2001 debut Is This It, is that album: instantly familiar, imbued with both a road-tested tightness and the world-weariness of the nouveau rock star, it’s custom-built to hold off the haters while the band figure out the whole fame thing. Casablancas’ first words to us are “I wanna be forgotten,” an allusion to the stress of celebrity as clear as Jack White’s promise to “fight ’em off” at the beginning of the White Stripes’ post-hype Elephant. But if the rest of the record is any indication, what the band want us to do is remember. “Meet Me in the Bathroom” is basically “Hard to Explain” with a different drum track; Casablancas has gone from wondering “Is this it?” (on the debut’s title cut) to asking “Is this how it ends?” (onRoom‘s “You Talk Way Too Much”). Last year’s model is this year’s model, too.
The good news is: so what? If the efforts of the ten thousand Stroke-alikes we’ve been asked to tolerate during the last two years prove anything, it’s that making a good Strokes album is much tougher than it looks. The band’s singular idea of rock nirvana — the third Velvet Underground album plus Television filtered through a childhood spent grooving on R.E.M., Guided by Voices, and the tinny beats of Casiotone keyboards — remains their own. Room‘s similarity to its predecessor ultimately bespeaks a purity of vision, not a dearth of new ideas.
As with Is This It, the ultracompressed sound of Room on Fire can be a liability, especially the way it makes Casablancas, an expressive vocalist, sound like he’s literally phoning it in. But just as South Park‘s animators use advanced computer software to make their cretins look like cardboard cutouts, the Strokes work hard to sound this cheap. They catch a lot of flak for plundering their idols, but no CBGB act ever sounded like this on purpose — not even the Ramones. Just as Mick Jagger’s skinny-tied appearance circa the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” clearly inspired Casablancas’ taste in accessories, the Strokes’ real sonic template is the Stones’ uncharacteristically lo-fi 1978 album, Some Girls. Not many bands dare to sound this naked on record, especially on the ultra-hyped follow-up to a wildly praised debut. But the gambit pays off: Room on Fireis the rare album you could imagine rocking college radioand storming Clear Channel’s barricades.
The most winning moment is “Under Control,” a post-punk revise of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.” And the kicky ’80s-style hand claps on “12:51” (which takes place exactly 52 minutes after Blondie’s “11:59”) make a song about being bored on a Friday night in New York City — not exactly a universal condition — resonate for bored people everywhere.
Casablancas may run out of ways to seductively bemoan his so-called life. And the Strokes may realize that speeding up Television’s “Marquee Moon” is a fun idea, but not the stuff of careers. For now, though, Big Challenges can wait. And when it comes time for the Strokes to make their Back-to-Basics Fourth Album, it should be no sweat.