Monday, October 29, 2007

[040] Is This It

Album: Is This It
Artist: The Strokes
Release Date: Aug. '01 [UK], Oct. '01 [US; delayed due to the 9/11 WTC attack]
Label: RCA
Producer: Gordon Raphael

"'Come on and listen to what I say
I've got some secrets that'll make you stay'
I just want to turn you down
I just want to turn you around
Oh, you ain't never had nothin' I wanted, but
I want it all, I just can't figure out...
- from "Barely Legal"

My first instinct for this entry was to have a one line review that read:
"Because it's a perfect album."

But you don't come here for my opinion, you come here for why my opinion should matter to you. That goes for all blogs; that's why people read them - to feel a connection, like someone else might feel the way they do. But few people feel the way I do about Is This It. Hmmmm, how do I put this? Let's say, in general, I am a fan of music and not the musician, which is to say if I like a band's music, I try to not become a zealot defender of the artist (The prime example I've ever encountered are female Smashing Pumpkins fans who think Billy Corgan is God, but that is a story for another day). Friends of mine might argue this fact having heard my support of, say, Queens of the Stone Age or Ghostface Killah or Spoon, but I'd never claim them to be the greatest thing since sliced bread (that would be Radiohead), and with The Strokes, I'd never try and tell anyone that Julian is the next John Lennon, who was really just a regular guy himself. For me, it has always been about this album alone. Beyond it, I enjoy the other two albums, I think they're good, but only a few songs really light my ass on fire like the entirety of Is This It.

I was already on the edge of my seat from the moment I got The Modern Age EP early in '01, badgering the BMG representative for an advance copy of the album as soon as he got it. He came through - the cardboard slipcase, with the original tracklist and cover, oh how I treasured it so. If you were around me between August 2001 and February 2002, then you heard this album in my presence; there is no doubt. I played that thing EVERY DAY for six months. My personal best was nine times in one day. It's just that kind of album - when it's over you want to play it again. Unfortunately, for the rest of the world, The Strokes were built up as the Greatest Show on Earth, and so the backlash was swift and full from both the small-minded who were OK with re-warmed grunge and watered-down nu metal and the impossible-to-please hipster who was too obsessed over whether they had trust funds and bought the old Coney Island High punk club. People wanted the next Stones, Velvets, Television, Ramones, Nirvana, Pavement, or whatever, when the first Strokes should have been good enough.

They just weren't interested in being that...artistic. They wanted to be a Rock band with some good tunes. Actually, the argument I made at the time was on a much smaller scale: The Strokes were simply the male Go-Go's. You may laugh, but The Go-Go's debut is one of the most underrated albums of the 1980's, and like the girl group, The Strokes excelled at making basic Pop music sound like the greatest Rock & Roll you ever heard. They were not alone; there was a lineage. If you want to force the Strokes into any bloodline, don't look towards the garage, look at your radio. Early Beatles & Kinks, Cheap Trick, Blondie, The Pretenders, The Jam, The Cars, and yes, Tom Petty were all contributors to The Strokes' gene pool. Is This It starts with the riff from the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" over the beat from Oasis' "Supersonic"; clearly they weren't trying to be Aphex Twin, or even the Glimmer Twins. And just because The Strokes wore leather jackets and didn't wash their hair doesn't mean they were Punk saviors, and just because they got fall-down drunk every night didn't mean that they weren't the tightest band around. The way the four musicians and one voice were interwoven with each other was tighter than an untouched vagina. By the time they entered the studio to record these songs The Strokes knew them inside and out.

It has been said that one of the most important things to the presentation of Rock lyrics is to be just unintelligible enough; you want to keep people guessing. Julian found a way to be that without sacrificing clarity; for the most part, his words are clear and all the messages find their way to your brain, except those messages are only half-complete. The singer provides no easy answers, just fragments; it's like that website, Overheard in NY. Every song is like hearing only one side of a phone conversation, even with Julian’s distorted vocal effect. A song like the title track is so one sided as to not even give a hint about what is going on. There's always a WTF moment coming around the bend, like in "Last Nite", a song we've all heard countless times now, when Julian slips in that "In spaceships, they won't understand"; oh really, care to elaborate? How 'bout that part in "NYC Cops" - "They act like Romans, but they dress like Turks" - or in "Barely Legal", the part about the "new trenchcoat"? Yeah, I got nothing, but that's the point. It's been six fuckin' years since this album came out, and it still plays fresh because those mysteries will likely never be solved. Julian knows this, and so he continues to spin more yarns.

Maybe he knows he can't write from the woman's perspective, or maybe he's not that presumptuous, but the masculinity on display is very specific, enough to seem sexy yet affable, but not too much as to come off macho, a factor that was lacking in Rock at the time. If you hang in NYC, think back to the nightlife of the time, and how it's nothing like the Lower East Side or Williamsburg is now. The Strokes and their low-lit tales let the debauchery out of the bag, and now everyone and everywhere wants to be Last Night's Party. And it's in those settings that Julian's vague scenes take place. Most of the songs are about some sort of relationship malfunction, even if that relationship is only a few hours old and fueled by alcohol (This of course made The Strokes look achingly cool, being perpetually inebriated). All the female points of view are second hand: "She says, 'I'm not like that'", "Maya says I'm lacking in depth", "Lisa says, 'Take time for me'", "Nina's in the bedroom; she said 'Time to go now'". Julian puts you on the barstool next to him and cries a bit into his lager, making him just sensitive enough, but then remembers to mention going back to that other girl's place last night.

Julian puts himself out there as the softy to make his band look tougher. The Strokes' songs on Is This It are essentially Pop songs, but they play rough, and I guess that's what most people reacted to. For me, it was an unexplained sweet spot in my musical brain, somehow just missed by all the bands I mentioned above; a little spot of sonic territory left untouched that they jumped on. I honestly don't like to use band equation to describe new bands, but that was the position that The Strokes were put in. Just because Nick and Albert have interlocking guitar parts and are from NYC doesn't mean they sound like Television; if you actually listen, they actually play more like Slash and Izzy on Appetite. Nikolai is clearly Soul-influenced; he makes "Someday" a great Motown throwback. Fab is a sloppy metronome, if that's possible (though he sounds precise enough on "Hard To Explain" to make some think it was a drum machine), and he keeps it simple, almost never using his crash cymbal; the way he switches from straight 4-4 to a shuffle and back, riding the ride, on "Trying Your Luck" is brilliant in its subtly. The Strokes can definitely wail when needed. "NYC Cops" rocks particularly hard, and Fab links up with Julian, double-dutching all over the end of "Soma". Nick's tasty mini-solo on "The Modern Age" is one of my favorites of all time, and Albert bests him, closing "Take It Or Leave It" with a serrated tone that slices right through everything. Best of all is the double climax of "Alone, Together"; its bloodsucker possibly a thinly-veiled reference to Julian's high-powered father, they take a run through the chorus one more time before unleashing a torrential solo and coda.

Beyond all the hype, The Strokes can now be seen as the great Pop band they were, with enough Rock to satisfy the boys. Is This It is one of the leanest albums of all time - I think I've used the word 'enough' more than any other in this entry, to convey the restraint on display - cutting the fat from bloated Alternative concept acts and over-produced Pop products to give the world something it hadn't had in a while: a band everyone could dig. Is This It will outlive the band, because it has everything that you'd want in a Rock & Roll record, everything the music is based on. That's what's important. That's why it's perfect.

01. "Is This It"
02. "The Modern Age"
03. "Soma"
04. "Barely Legal"
05. "Someday"
06. "Alone, Together"
07. "Last Nite"
08. "Hard To Explain"
09. "New York City Cops"
10. "Trying Your Luck"
11. "Take It Or Leave It"
This is the original version of the album, available everywhere but in the US, where "New York City Cops" is replaced by the song "When It Started".

"Barely Legal" [live on MTV, 02.02]

"Last Nite" [video]

"Hard To Explain" [live on Leno]

"Take It Or Leave It" [live on Letterman]

- BONUS: "Is This It" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "The Modern Age" [video/live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "The Modern Age" [live on Conan O'Brien, 11.01]
- BONUS: "Soma" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Barely Legal" [live at Radio City Music Hall]
- BONUS: "Someday" [video]
This is what Rock stardom gets you: Slash & Duff are your drinking buddies, and you get to play The Feud against Guided By Voices.
- BONUS: "Someday" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: "Someday" [live on Conan O'Brien]
- BONUS: "Alone, Together" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Last Nite" [live on SNL]
- BONUS: "Hard To Explain" [video]
- BONUS: "Hard To Explain" [live on SNL]
- BONUS: "New York City Cops" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "New York City Cops" [live at Radio City Music Hall]
with Jack White on guitar
- BONUS: "When It Started" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Trying Your Luck" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- BONUS: "Take It Or Leave It" [live on MTV, 02.02]
- SUPER BONUS: 27-minute set [live in NYC, 04.00]
Early set at Arlene's Grocery

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