BY JEFF LEVEN
Some secrets do not keep very well. Case in point: the big to-do that is the Strokes these days. Rumblings in the English magazines — reviews lavished in wild tones of indulgent reverence that the Brits only reserve these days for Radiohead or, on a slow Thom Yorke news day, Travis. Rumors of revelatory live shows, and a thousand uttered predictions of earth-shaking rock ascendancy: Defenders of the faith. Rock ‘n’ Roll reborn. Things you just do not say lightly. Or should not. On the strength of one single and one three-song EP (four songs!) and an early release overseas (undoubtedly calculated to bring the hype to fever pitch), the Strokes find their U.S. release of their debut album, Is This It, riding a tremendous and increasingly fervent wave of publicity, slowed only by a last minute change in release date from September 25 to October 9 prompted by the group’s decision to replace their original song “New York Cops” (featuring the line “New York cops, they ain’t too smart”) with a newly recorded one in light of recent events.
But now that my copy has finally come, I am just that little bit hesitant to actually hear these guys. There is just something fishy about this whole thing. I’m looking at the leather-and-booty cover art which, by the way, might well be the preempted original cover to Smell the Glove, and I am staring over their grimy booklet mug-shots thinking that they look very, very much like Kotter’s Sweathogs and I am thinking about all the hype and I am wondering whether or not any supposed greasy guitar-slingers who look like the Sweathogs should really be getting this kind of nearly blind attention on the strength of a few songs all around the big wide world unless we, the collected rock lovers of the planet, are well on our way to being had. Baited breath, give it a spin.
I am gonna level with you: This is cool. Very cool. Perhaps even important in these days of boy bands and Britneys. But by no means a revelation. I was hoping for steely-eyed street-walkin’ cheetahs with hearts full of napalm and some singed eyebrows and frenzied Bowery angst and maybe the ghost of Johnny Thunders puking in the shadows and instead what I got was essentially a Velvet Underground/latter day Iggy Pop tribute with an accomplished pop sensibility — lovingly rendered, tastefully executed, but ultimately more a reminder of why the musical past was cool than a hint of how the future could be promising.
The first thing that strikes you about the album is how frighteningly good singer Julian Casablanca’s Lou Reed and Iggy Pop impressions are. In some places it’s absolutely eerie. On a song like “The Modern Age” his fuzzed-out lower-register gutter yawns could almost be sampled from “The Passenger” or, alternately, “Heroin.” Aside from the initial novelty of these impersonations, though, the vocals on the whole probably hurt the album. These guys are not as haplessly derivative as they initially look or sound.
Admittedly, the band itself does little to hide its huge debt to the Velvets in particular — on songs like “Soma” or “Someday” rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. often appropriates (and nails) that Gretsch-and-a-Vox chimey grit tone that Reed so
buoyantly clanged out on songs like “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane.” But Is This It has a certain concision and power pop sweet tooth to it that does not necessarily follow from its obvious influences. You would be hard-pressed to imagine Ron Asheton playing as understated and tuneful a solo as Nick Valensi does on “Trying Your Luck,” and the inflections on “Hard to Explain” are airy and anthemic in a way that suggests a revved-up Big Star playing a Coney Island boardwalk.
Ignoring the genealogy of it all, I can safely say that there is not a bad song in the lot. The riffs are uniformly good, the beats themselves generally seamless if not overpowering, and you can hear the potential for some truly stellar live adaptations of the material. Best of all, the Strokes pull it all off with a genuine confidence that is truly impressive in such a fledgling act. One can only hope that this wherewithal allows these particular rock Sweathogs to survive the growing critical circus surrounding them and develop a more unique voice that capitalizes on their already staggering command of the NY punk past.
But for now: Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.