Room on Fire
Hype is considered more blessing than curse for a young rock act. Though industry types will tell you it's crucial that buzz be cultivated gradually and delicately, bands and labels pay publicists to create it first and control it a distant second. And hype clearly pays off in short-term commercial ways: it starts bidding wars, fills rooms, sells shirts. But in the long run, hype always raises the stakes. When the press on both sides of the Atlantic has assigned you the task of saving rock 'n' roll, how do you go about the business of just playing music?
Making the follow-up to a breakout record has proved too much for a lot of good bands. The Stone Roses weren't much more than a pre-Nirvana cult favorite over here, but in the UK the Roses' 1989 debut, a visionary hybrid of psychedelic guitar pop and dance music, was the high point of the Madchester era. Band and album were greeted by the British music press with a reverence that transcended its trademark hyperbole. It felt like the beginning of a brilliant career; as it turned out, it was about as far as the band would go. A legal battle with their label didn't help, but the Roses were slow to get back into the studio and even slower once they were there. Tempted by an unlimited recording budget and unable to agree on a musical direction, they took five years to make another album. When Second Coming finally saw the light in 1994, it was overblown and out of touch, seemingly the work of lazy, presumptuous Zeppelin wannabes. The public was no longer interested, and within a year and a half the band had broken up.
In the face of acclaim and the scrutiny that comes with it, some artists have responded with bizarrely grandiose, unsatisfying epics (Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I & II), others with abrasive, harder-to-love sequels (PJ Harvey's Dry). Lauryn Hill came back with the raspy, troubled MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, apparently signaling something between retreat and total meltdown. And some haven't responded at all: the La's and My Bloody Valentine, crippled by their own lofty standards, simply fell silent.
But occasionally a band seems to realize that just staying the course might be achievement enough. To take small steps is daring in its own way, one that's more responsive to the challenges of the artistic process than to the demands of hype.
Certainly few artists in recent memory have caught a wave of hype like the one the Strokes have been riding for the last couple of years--from nearly the beginning, buzz has been the sixth member of the band. Even before the release of Is This It (RCA) in late 2001, the British press had fallen hard for the Strokes' faultless influences, wardrobe, looks, and swagger ("Why New York's Finest Will Change Your Life--Forever!"), and the adulation, extreme even by UK standards, became part of the band's story. American writers took notice, the inevitable backlash kicked in, and soon the Strokes were everywhere--dozens of articles were written about how much press the band was getting. By the time they finished touring behind Is This It last fall, speculation had begun about how they'd follow it up. These expectations, too, became part of the story ("Strokes Feel Pressure as New Album Unfolds?").
The Strokes' reaction to this might have been predicted earlier this year, when after ten days of recording with Nigel Godrich (of Radiohead and Beck fame) they decided to start over with Gordon Raphael, who'd been an unknown until he tracked Is This It in his New York basement studio. There's no leap from Is This It to Room on Fire the way there was from The Bends to OK Computer. The Strokes have built not a monument but a safe house, where they can experiment at their own pace.
The sound of the record is familiar from the last one (if slightly more hi-fi), and the basic stylistic elements are too: chiming and chugging rhythm guitars, economical and uptight drumming, lead singer Julian Casablancas's bothered, almost theatrical delivery, stuttering stops and starts, and the occasional release of a searing rock guitar solo. Only after a few times through do you realize they've quietly taken their songwriting to another level--it's miles from the Elastica-style appropriation their debut sometimes slipped into. If you insist on trainspotting, yes, there are still traces of Blondie, Television, Lou Reed, Tom Petty, Iggy Pop, perhaps Wire's Chairs Missing. But the band has now absorbed its influences to the point that they actually seem like influences.
All over Room on Fire the Strokes are stretching out, playing with the details. Hand claps and a synthy-sounding guitar line turn "12:51" into a new-wave summer song, more a head bopper than a rocker in the vein of "Last Night," with a surprisingly easygoing lead vocal from Casablancas. Little electronic touches and processed drum sounds pop up here and there; the band tries out a reggae groove on "Between Love and Hate." The soul-tinged "Under Control" is possibly the group's best tune so far. Casablancas sounds unusually sincere when he sings "I don't wanna change your mind / I don't wanna waste your time / I just wanna know you're all right." It's a ratio of sweet to bitter he never allows himself on the attitude-heavy Is This It.
Ignoring the hype and going about your business seems like a healthy strategy for making a second album. But playing live is another story: when you've been alternately touted and dismissed the way the Strokes have, the live show is a chance to set the record straight. The Sunday before last at the Aragon Ballroom, they came out like they still had something to prove. Opening with "Under Control," the five-piece seemed to have adopted the line "I don't wanna waste your time" as its philosophy. Five of the first eight songs were from Room on Fire, whose release had been pushed back to October 28; the new material wasn't as conducive to pogoing as "Someday," which showed up fourth on the set list, but the crowd remained enthralled.
The mike-stand-tossing Casablancas has become an even more assured performer than he was in early 2001 when the Strokes were opening for Guided by Voices, but the real revelation was how huge the band sounded--the show was overpowering in a way that Room on Fire dares not to be. Casablancas's vocals were richer; the sonic assault from guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. was massive, like chunks of chrome hurled into space. On the new material, Valensi's guitar leads were more complex, his interplay with Hammond more developed. Maybe someday they'll make an album that captures this heavier, more expansive feel, but for now the Strokes seem right to please themselves first and let the listener and history sort it out; they're in the process of becoming the band they want to be. It's wise at this stage to realize that at the end of the night there's really only the one critic you can't shut up.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.