This is the stuff of which legends are made. Recorded in a sub-basement studio off Avenue A in Manhattan, where the air was blue with cigarette smoke and three pictures from a Victoria’s Secret catalog were taped to a cabinet for something like inspiration, the Strokes’ debut album is pure New York rock & roll: all gray-pavement aggression wrapped in black-leather cool. Less than a year ago, the Strokes were handing out gig fliers to uninterested fans at Weezer shows; now, they are the subject of British magazine covers, schoolgirl crushes (assuming you know the right schoolgirls) and, already, disgruntled in-crowd jealousy.
The object of all this attention is a group of five young men of cosmopolitan, privileged upbringings — the oldest twenty-three, the youngest twenty — who have a pronounced fondness for kissing each other in public. (For them, the more comfortable you are with your masculinity, the more tongue you slip.) In the last two years, they have perfected their sound: a rhythmic snarl that draws on Seventies punk and New Wave but recalls nothing so much as a bunch of British mods — the Yardbirds or the Who, say — tearing through Chuck Berry and James Brown covers for the freedom and sense of possibility they found there and nowhere else. Their songs are twitchy tales of time spent chasing or running from New York girls, which is to say girls who are too smart, girls who take too much or too little of whatever’s handy, girls who have everything you want and nothing you need.
So what does the best young rock band in America sound like? Frantic, for starters. The eleven songs on Is This It speed by in just slightly more than half an hour, each one so tightly constructed and urgently delivered that even the ballads seem fast. The Strokes are obsessed with rhythm, and at times their approach is more like that of a soul or funk band than a rock band: Each player, even the drummer, pushes at the melody from a different rhythmic angle until there are no more angles left to explore. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi’s interlocking, incessant rhythm-guitar parts free bassist Nikolai Fraiture to sweeten songs such as “Someday,” “Last Nite” and the title track with graceful, Motown-like countermelodies. On “The Modern Age,” Hammond Jr. and Valensi work things into a frenzy, doubling up on rhythm and stutter-stepping around the beat, then pushing the melody skyward in the chorus with ascending, circular chords until there’s nowhere to go but further. A solo lifts off like a rocket, leaving a trail of distortion in its wake, then disappears into more guitar chatter. There’s a gloss on the music that’s scientific, cold, British, but underneath, things are distinctly passionate, American. The short, choppy guitar riffs and bottles-breaking-on-the-sidewalk drumbeats bring to mind the punk rock of New York and London, to be sure, but Is This It jumps along like punk as played by a boogie band; that is, a band in a mad rush to get to the finish and grab a cold beer and a warm girl.
Like John Lennon double-tracking his vocals so he could scream across the gap it created or Bryan Ferry lounging in the back of his songs to draw the listener in, frontman Julian Casablancas uses distance to communicate passion. Half the time, he seems to be singing through an intercom, like he’s buzzing at the door asking to come into your life, and his greatest trick is a pleading tear in his voice that lets him slip around the songs, crooning one second, leering the next, then exploding into a throat-shredding shout. His message is relatively simple: I’ll try harder, but don’t bother leaving, I’m walking out the door. Or, as he says in “Take It or Leave It,” “Girls lie too much/Boys are too tough/Enough is enough.” He papers over his vulnerability with arrogance the way Mick Jagger did early on, but everywhere on Is This It he is lamenting relationships that go nowhere but won’t go away. He can also be frustratingly oblique, as likely to focus all the album’s emotional energy on a lyric whose meaning is entirely private (“Why won’t you wear your new trench coat?”) as on one that will stick in your brain to last (“Alone we stand, together we fall apart”).
At the start of “Last Nite,” a woman turns to Casablancas and says, “Oh, baby, I feel so down. Oh, it turns me off when I feel left out.” Exactly what fun he’s left her out of is unclear, though I’m relatively sure it isn’t dinner-party conversation. Is This It is laced with decadence and heartbreak: Strange scenes inside the bedroom, boys on their knees instructed to take some time for her, the fabulous pickup line “Life seems unreal/Can we go back to your place?” It works up quite a buzz, but when the buzz clears, most every song comes back to the same territory — the push and pull of troubled relationships — and not in a way that offers many fresh insights. Women — can’t live with them even if you offer to be their slave, pass me a pill or a bottle of something expensive. For now, the Strokes have mastered their style; they have yet to come up with the substance to match it.
But the music leaves no doubts — more joyful and intense than anything else I’ve heard this year. As a starting point, I’d say that’s pretty good indeed.