The Strokes -- Room On Fire
RCA Records; 2003
I'm really sorry.
You see, the first time I attempted to review this album, I tried to make this grand analogy about The Strokes that somehow involved the "American Gladiators" television show. I tried to make the band out to be these heroes that battled against the press industry (Gladiators), but it just wasn't right.
The Strokes have had their fair share of false labels bestowed upon them in their relatively short time together. They've been called the salvation of rock, fashion-obsessed posers, a secretive hipster collective, corporate sell-outs and just "those gay men." (Thanks, Courtney Love!) Instead of spouting off another lofty ambition/characterization, I'd rather focus on what we know for sure: they're a rock and roll band that wants to make rock and roll music. With their second full-length album, Room on Fire
, The Strokes do a damn good job of reassuring us of those facts.
The bar is set high with "What Ever Happened?" the voracious opener of "Room on Fire
." Everything about the song screams catchy, from guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.'s relentless strumming, to vocalist Julian Casablancas' beautifully bending pitch, to drummer Fabrizio Moretti's steady pulse-keeping. "Reptilia" is just as hook-laden, propelled by Casablancas' spitfire delivery and the gnashing interplay of Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi's guitar parts.
In fact, it's the tag team of Hammond Jr.'s slashing strum and Valensi's finger picking that form many of Room on Fire
's standout tracks. "Automatic Stop" is carved into a breezy summer song by Hammond Jr.'s backbeat cadence and Valensi's buzzing mock-keyboard tone. Borrowing guitar jangles and drum rhythms from Help!
-era Beatles songs, "Between Love and Hate" mixes them with Casablancas' high school-themed lyrics to form a bittersweet retrospective of teenage angst.
The Strokes' only musical disappointment is found in their solid-yet-sleepy rhythm section. The majority of Room on Fire
sees Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture and plodding away on support parts, never really stepping to the forefront of the song. Fraiture's basswork especially lumbers around (albeit somewhat nimbly on a few tracks) like it's bored and ready for a nap. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if the rest of the band wasn't already playing the hell out of their instruments.
In general, Room on Fire
comes off as more refined and road-weary, but never lazy. The band's more deliberate songwriting approach yields such gems as doo-wop rocker "Under Control" and the crunchy break up hymn "You Talk Way Too Much." The most impressive maturation comes from Julian Casablancas, who has finally learned when to coo and when to roar (as evinced on "What Ever Happened?" and "The End Has No End").
One major speculation that rock pundits made about Room on Fire
was that it would be a rehashing of their debut -- Is This It (Part Deux)
, if you will. On a few songs The Strokes are guilty of regressing to their past formula of success, as "The Way It Is" and "I Can't Win" sound like echoes of Is This It
However, the majority of Room on Fire
is incredibly diverse, sounding fresh and varied. The boys even bring a new type of sound to their repertoire, one startlingly akin to the new wave hits from The Cars. Both new single "12:51" and "The End Has No End" are lit by Valensi's neon glow guitar tone; giving them a bounce that further proves their detractors wrong.
While it may seem like The Strokes greatest talent is picking up silly titles ("the coolest band on Earth" -- sheesh), "Room on Fire" shows their true skill lies in playing rock and roll. The Strokes put to rest any claims of a sophomore slump by recording a remarkably energetic and confident second album. It's only rock and roll, but I like it.