Change is good. It can be important, even historic. It is not always necessary. One of the best things about Room on Fire, the Strokes’ second album, is that, in most of the ways that matter, it is exactly like their first. Nick Valensi’s and Albert Hammond Jr.’s dirty-treble guitars cut ‘n’ thrust over the hard-rubber bounce of bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas delivers his put-up-or-fuck-off telegrams in a brusque, corrosive drawl, and producer Gordon Raphael wraps up the whole package with airtight austerity. On first impact, Room on Fire is to 2001’s Is This It as the Ramones’ second album, Leave Home, was to their knuckle-sandwich debut — a perfect twin.
But the Strokes who made Room on Fire are not the cocky overnight sensations of two years ago. In the album’s opening damage report, “What Ever Happened?,” Casablancas’ voice is so disfigured by fuzz in the first verse (“I wanna be forgotten/And I don’t wanna be reminded”), it’s as if he’s singing over a broken speakerphone from a burning building. Like any good New Yorker, Casablancas is suspicious and impatient by nature. But the distance and distrust in his songwriting and ashen monotone on Is This It were nothing like this. Casablancas sings the title chorus of “You Talk Way Too Much” with cold, dry calm — the high, mocking whine of the lead-guitar break provides extra cruelty — and wraps up the brittle reggae of “Automatic Stop” with even less gallantry: “I’m not your friend/I never was.”
The music is just as terse and unforgiving. In “Reptila,” instruments blitz in and out of your face with the abrupt precision of a Lee Perry dub mix: a single, grinding guitar; Fraiture’s pumping, one-note bass; the whole band in full, flailing rave-up. At times, the near-mono severity of Raphael’s production seems designed to keep the Strokes off the radio. There is so much boxy compression on the high-speed bass, guitars and drums in “The Way It Is” that it sounds like the band cut it in the locked trunk of a ’56 Chevy doing 110 miles an hour.
There are also jolts of color and dropped guard — hints of what the Strokes must have hoped for in their aborted sessions for this record with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich — in the whistling-synthesizer guitar lick in “12:51,” a cheerful shot of ’78 Cars; and the pneumatic, sighing strum of “Meet Me in the Bathroom.” But another of the best things about Room on Fire is that, in the face of hysterical expectation, the Strokes have resisted the temptation to hit the brakes, grow up and screw around with a sound that doesn’t need fixing — yet. “Please don’t slow me down, if I’m going too fast,” Casablancas sings with heavily distorted irritation in “Reptila.” If you want comfort and clarity, you’re definitely in the wrong room. This record was built for thrills and speed.