Hype is a double edged sword and The Strokes know this better than anybody. In the last two years, many journalists claimed that The Strokes were the “saviors” of rock music. Their debut album “Is This It” was a loud, sloppy, very cool sounding affair. Tracks like “Last Night”, “Someday”, and “Hard To Explain” had a classic feel. Dirty and handsome, The Strokes just stand there and play with a no bullshit attitude. There’s no spandex, no explosions, no backup singers or even samples. There is just a 5-piece band.
Lead singer, John Casablancas, has a bluesy voice with strong influences by Lou Reed as well as Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Nick Valensi’s lead guitar owes a bit of debt to Joey Santiago of The Pixies. Like The Ramones, The Strokes have short, simple, loud songs that sound very similar to each other but there is genius and beauty in the simplicity.
And after travelling through the wall of hype, The Strokes have returned with their sophomore LP “Room On Fire”. Many bands with hit debut LPs make misunderstood second albums, but not The Strokes. There is no experimentation or envelope pushing. Instead, the songs are even simpler, the sound is a little more muddy and noisier, and the LP is actually shorter!
Even though “Room On Fire” also has eleven songs and sounds the same, the LP shows maturity. The hooks are there but they are not as extremely catchy as the ones on “Is This It”. The songs take a little more time and attention to sink into the mind. This is perhaps good and bad. Some fans of “Is This It” may be disappointed at first, but if given a chance, “Room On Fire” rewards repeated listens and is a very cool and entertaining rock album.
The very start of the LP shows both a similarity and a difference to their debut. In the opening cut “What Ever Happened?”, The muddy guitars have a thick, driving sound as Casablancas sings the first line “I want to be forgotten!” His voice is loud and scratchy like the music. It is an explosive way to open the LP as opposed the much more mellow and slower title cut on “Is This It”.
Without a doubt, one of the best tracks on the LP is “Meet Me In The Bathroom”. The driving rhythm and cool sounding guitar has all of the simplicity of The Ramones, the vocals of Iggy Pop, and the sexual nostalgia of high school. Casablancas sings the hook:
Meet me in the bathroom
That’s what she said
I don’t mind, it’s true
Never been on time
Yes, I once was mine
Well, that was long ago
And darling, I don’t mind
We were just to friends in lust
And baby, that just don’t mean much
you trained me not to love
After you showed me what it was…
It is especially poignant the second time when it is just Casablancas and the guitar for the hook. “Between Love & Hate” is another excellent track that has Casablancas singing:
I never needed anybody
I never needed nobody…
His vocal tones especially sound like Lou Reed when the hook changes towards the end. It’s another excellent track, and a potential single, where beauty is found in simplicity.
“Under Control” is the only slow track the LP. As soon as Casablancas sings the first line “I don’t want to waste your time”, the song instantly feels like a classic. “The End Has No End” is another catchy track that also could have been a single.
“Reptilia” is a very up-tempo track with pulsating rhythms and driving guitar work. “Please don’t slow me down if I’m going too fast”, sings Casablancas, summing up the theme of the track. Although it is loud and loose, it is paradoxically tight at the same time. “The Way It Is” is another loud, quick, and cacophonic track about accepting the problems in life.
I wish it was not true but that’s the way it is
It’s not your fault but that’s the way it is…
It is very catchy, somewhat depressing, and has plenty of the same attitude that made people fall in love with The Strokes the first time around.
Like all albums, some songs do not instantly grab the listener. The lead single “12:51” is a solid choice, but not a very catchy track considering their past singles. “Last Night” and “Someday” had both vocals and guitar work that stuck in your head. “12:51” is a little too noisy to be accessible despite an 80s new wave feel to it.
“Automatic Stop” starts out as a superb track but the chorus, (where the singer states that he was never your friend), just falls flat. “You Talk Way Too Much” is the opposite. Here, the hook is superb while the verses are not. The final track, “I Can’t Win”, uses a very similar guitar riff to “Last Night” but the song does not have the same classic feel and is probably the least impressive on the entire album.
While “Room On Fire” can and should stand by itself, it’s impossible not to compare it to “Is This It”. “Room On Fire” does not bring anything new to The Strokes persona. Musically, the album takes a step backwards since it is even more stripped down than the already back to basics approach on their debut.
Like Ride’s second album “Going Blank Again”, “Room On Fire” is much noisier than their debut. We hear the heart of the band without special sound effects or production magic. “Room On Fire” is a studio album that probably best captures the band’s live sound.
Although not breaking any new musical ground, “Room On Fire” is still an enjoyable release for fans of the band. For people who are new to the group, “Is This It” is a much better introduction to their music. There is always the danger that If The Strokes keep putting out similar album after similar album like The Ramones did, some fans will get bored, while others may feel that they can depend on the band for true rock music. There is no one simple way to win.
Perhaps “Room On Fire” could have been better if there were one or two more slow songs or if they did just one or two new and daring sonic experiments. That way, they could have maintained their style while showing that they were capable of doing something different, too.
Overall, The Strokes bring an energy to their stripped down New York rock and roll that has been missing in music for a long time. Despite its shortcomings “Room On Fire” is a lovely way to burn.
Room on Fire (2003)
Record Label: RCA