The Strokes

Room on Fire

(RCA; 2003)

By Scott Reid | 13 October 2003

Few bands elicit the kind of hatred the Strokes have received in the past few years. Though mostly pointless, the violent backlash was imminent; at one point, the Strokes were relatively everywhere -- right down to a performance on SNL, magazine covers (NME had them, what, 4 times that summer?) and constant name-dropping from celebrities and your friend's teenage sister alike. I can understand where some people might have an instantaneous reaction to a band sudden thrown into their faces by hyperbolic magazines and annoying teenage girls, but this is still little excuse for confusing the idea of gaining popularity with unreasonable expectations of talent. In other words, by the time many had heard the album, expectations were so high because of the hype that no matter what they heard they would feel disappointed and eager to tear the band down from their high horse. The Strokes never stood a chance.

Is This It wasn't and still isn't the sort of album made for critical assassination of style and unreasonable expectations, yet so few were able to approach the album without a critical bias. Maybe my love of the band was, in part, due to the fact that I'd seen them live and had been blown away by them before the media onslaught, able to digest their album on level with any other band that could've been opening for the Doves that night. They were an opening band afterall, and I expected little to nothing from them -- by the time I had heard the full length later that summer, their popularity was only just in the beginning stages and my hopes for them still delightfully intact.

When they hit big -- as everyone at the show that night knew they would -- the backlash was quick and, for the most part, based on a predictable indie mentality; scene-leaches and bandwagon-jumpers alike were sporting Strokes shirts, fawning over how dreamy Julian was and driving their concert tickets up from five bucks to fifty in just under a year. They were everywhere, so the natural inclination was to do the opposite of "the masses" and hate them -- usually taking asinine shots at the band in justification. C'mon, we know them all: "They don't do anything new." "They just rip off the Velvet Underground and the Stooges." "They aren't as good as everyone wants them to be." "I don't get what all the fuss is about, they suck." I'm not saying there aren't entirely good reasons for disliking the band or their debut, but hollow criticism that could apply to any number of bands is the sort of mindset that keeps the backlash rolling, even now two years later upon the release of their sophomoric effort, Room on Fire.

For those who'd love to see the band fall flat on their face with this album and reveal themselves as the media-fueled style-without-substance wannabe/has-beens they "certainly are," Room on Fire will no doubt offer them a fair amount of ammo to once again use in proclaiming their disgust. Several of the songs are merely different from their precursors in minuscule ways -- in one case, "Meet Me in the Bathroom," the similarity to a former song (Is This It's shining moment, "Hard to Explain") is downright ridiculous. Yet for the flaws that the detractors will continue to magnify in attempts to magically prove the band's irrelevance, Room on Fire ultimately proves itself a worthy successor and by far one of the year's best pop-rock albums.

For those of us that unabashedly still adore their debut (even if it has worn slightly thin over the years) or are just willing to give the new album an honest go (and yes, for the trucker cap wearing of our readership, unironic), one thing should be made clear: you probably aren't going to care much for it on first listen. In fact, after a couple of complete listens (don't worry, it'll only take about an hour to do this), only a handful of the songs will probably stand out amongst a wall of monotonously underproduction that continuously really begs one important question: why do the drums sound like presets from an old Casio?

Like some of the better rock albums of the past few years (most recently, Spoon's Kill the Moonlight), Room on Fire will probably take a bunch of listens before revealing its tightly compressed and roughly executed "charms" to even the most dedicated of Strokes' fans. The demo-quality of the production (at the hands of Gordon Raphael, the producer of ITI), again like last year's Kill the Moonlight, is initially an obstacle that belies the strong hooks buried deceptively close to the surface. But this isn't a complicated listen by any means -- its simple arrangements blend everything so close together that it takes so many listens to even differentiate each song from the next and focus on the subtle differences that makes this album such a consistently engaging listen.

"What Ever Happened" opens the album with a similar muted guitar note as Stevie Nick's "Edge of Seventeen" before opening into something extremely familiar: Julian's distorted vocals, the steady bass notes and wire-thin lead lines that quickly change from superfluous to as catchy as the lead vocal. It's certainly no revelation but a continuation of the simple and jovial style that made Is This It such a simple and enjoyable listen. "Reptilia" and "Automatic Stop" follow the same formula, again saved by their memorable hooks (the former being the weakest of the set, but still passable) and autonomous production values that, as the band intended, add a rough and unfinished feel to the songs. But if that was the only appeal of the album, it'd grow boring before the last half wound to a close.

The Cars feel of first single "12:51" is the first instance of a beneficial addition to their style, mixing the mid-tempo drive of the song with a simple vocal-melody mimicking synth line to great effect. Likewise, "Between Love and Hate" is like a mid-tempo reconstruction of "Last Nite," its chorus equally as exciting and memorable. After the superfluous regurgitation of "Meet Me in the Bathroom" comes the album's real highlight, "Under Control." It's a soulful jaunt that circumvents the monotonous feel by slowly pushing its extraordinary melody in a manner I'd honestly never thought the band capable of.

Thankfully the remaining three tracks follow this direction instead of going back over the opening exercises in pushing a style they'd already dragged out with Is This It. "The Way It Is" is especially notable, its poor percussion track more than made up for with the great tension/climax buildup of its simple three-chord structure. It's this kind of thrilling simplicity that most attack but is also the source of their great talent; though the band is certainly an easy target, their impressive ability to build so much affecting material from such simple and familiar tools is incredibly rare. That the Strokes continue to explore this instead of giving in and attempting a style that would renounce their infamous debut is something that should be lauded, not delved upon as a detrimental flaw.