Welcome to the Machine

The Strokes refine the blueprint

THE STROKES
First Impressions of Earth
RCA

The Strokes annoy people the way New York annoys people--without necessarily meaning to, but without being especially bothered when it occurs, which just makes it all the more infuriating. Here's an entire country of artists busting their asses for some attention, only to have some hosebag by dint of area code get all over the goddamn tabloids every time he sneezes. At least L.A. has sunshine, elbow room, and an industry whose job it is to blow people up to 15 times their normal size. New Yorkers are famous for being famous by definition.

For a while, that's what I thought the Strokes were, too--and living in New York for most of 2001, during the band's ascendancy, didn't hurt my private auto-backlash against them. Then I took a job at an East Village record store--one of the uncool ones you've probably never heard of unless you live there.

Jazz, Latin, metal, and hip hop were our primary sellers; our clientele mostly came in from the boroughs (no, not Williamsburg). When the import version of Is This It (which preceded the domestic release by a few months) came in, the manager played it every night, and every night someone bought a copy, mostly people who hadn't heard of the Strokes and didn't know they were fellow New Yorkers.

Even if I had continued to resist the songs, which proved impossible, knowing that people liked them outside of the rock-biz beltway helped open me up to them.

Still, famous-for-being-famous is a problem, and the Strokes have been dealing with it since their demo became a U.K. press sensation. So it feels appropriate that the band's greatest recorded moment is also their most self-reflexive. On "On the Other Side" from their new First Impressions of Earth, singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas finally gives in completely to the ennui he alternately half-heartedly embraces and fights against. Lyrically, the song is a parody of everything the Strokes' detractors think they are: Casablancas begins, "I'm tiiiired of everyooooone I knooooow," as his bandmates style themselves in their coke mirrors. Then, in the second verse, Casablancas nails nightlife ethos to the cross more perfectly than anyone this side of Craig Finn: "I hate them all/I hate myself for hating them/So I'll drink some more/I'll love them all/I'll drink even more/I'll hate them even more than I did before." Check, please.

"I know what's waiting for me on the other side," Casablancas concludes, his voice all comic dread. We the public assume we do, too: more blow, more groupies, more more. The thing is, Casablancas doesn't sound like he's complaining. He seems to have figured that these are the rules of the game, so he might as well have some fun with them.

Or at least as much fun as he can communicate, which is where things get tricky. Even the Strokes' most staticky b&w distorto moments surround a machine-like impulse as pronounced as Kraftwerk's. Fab Moretti not only drums like an amped, chain-smoking metronome, his fellow musicians' every lick and run is arranged with the same ruthless, Vulcan-death-grip care. As much as anything--the looks, the fashion sense, the family moolah--this is what makes the Strokes seem unapproachable, and even Earth's more varied tonal palette isn't going to change that. Neither does the fact that Casablancas clearly took his time to do his job right. His singing is noticeably broader, fuller, and more nuanced than ever. He cracks jokes all over the place and gets realistically angsty. But like everything else, the tightness of the band's sound subsumes it; nothing is out of place (except maybe the drumless "Ask Me Anything," where treated guitars act like violins) and nothing stands out especially, either.

"Why won't you come over here?/We've got a city to love," Casablancas squalls on "Juicebox," the words snapping back at him like Sly Stone mockingly reciting the names of his old hits on "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)": So the city survived, and so did we. Now what? The answer, appropriately, seems to be: Refine the blueprint, tighten the gears, give the machinists an extra week's vacation, then reconvene and do it all over again. Not bad for a group that doesn't have to do anything ever again to get noticed.

 
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