Is This It – The Strokes (Album Review)

By Cameron Yule

‘This Week’s Classic: a new column looking at classic albums – from the Beatles to Kendrick Lamar, from Nina Simone to Arcade Fire – and wondering what all the hype is about. Is Bob Dylan a visionary or simply overrated? Is What’s The Story (Morning Glory) the product of a band at their creative height or pure banality? We’ll find out…’

‘It’s not like fuckin’ Beatlemania’, said the Strokes’ guitarist Nick Valensi, as the hype
surrounding the band reached its peak in the summer of 2001. It wasn’t like Beatlemania –
Valensi was right, but the mere need to dismiss the comparison gives some idea of the
attention that the Strokes were commanding during the release of their debut album.
In retrospect, the attention lavished upon the Strokes was hyperbolic, although justifiably
so: The Strokes’ emergence had revitalised a flagging indie scene. The White Stripes, after
the release of their second album De Stijl were beginning to reach a wider audience but
were still relatively unknown; bands then touted as stars, such as Starsailor and the Moldy
Peaches were plainly not good enough to make it big.

Is This It remains the Strokes’ defining creation: tight, catchy, and witty.

Suddenly, the Strokes appeared to look and, more importantly, sounding the part. A five-piece
fronted by Julian Casablancas, they had been around for about three years, working
on a fourteen-song set that would form the majority of Is This It. For all their indie
pretensions, the Strokes epitomised privilege: Casablancas and Albert Hammond, Jr., the
lead guitarist, met at boarding school in Switzerland, whilst Casablancas had befriended and
started playing with the band’s other members whilst at various New York private schools.
This is unimportant, however, since not only were the Strokes by no means the first posh
boys of rock ‘n’ roll (Mick Jagger was an undergrad at LSE before he dropped out to found the
Rolling Stones), they also easily outstripped their contemporaries for verve and charisma.

Casablancas’ sneer is pure Lou Reed, with a bit of Iggy Pop thrown in for good measure

Is This It remains the Strokes’ defining creation: tight, catchy, and witty. It’s the album that
brought the garage rock revival to the mainstream; the album responsible for kickstarting
the careers of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Killers, and the Libertines. Even more influentially, Is
This It showed that guitar bands had the potential to succeed both critically and
successfully, providing a blueprint for later bands such as the Arctic Monkeys, Cage the
Elephant, and Catfish and the Bottlemen: indie guitar rock became one of the new
millennium’s main musical trends.

Is This It is far more than the sum of its influences: the Strokes refashion
their inspirations and invest them with a sense of urgency and feeling

The Strokes’ own sound is straight out of 1970s’ New York, with one contemporary critic
saying it ‘couldn’t be more like the Velvet Underground if it wore a black polo-neck, hung
around with transvestites and developed a debilitating amphetamine habit.’ Casablancas’
sneer is pure Lou Reed, with a bit of Iggy Pop thrown in for good measure. The riffs and
confidence with which they’re played recall Television, and the syncopations of ‘Someday’
and ‘The Modern Age’ are reminiscent of Talking Heads.

At the same time, Is This It is far more than the sum of its influences: the Strokes refashion
their inspirations and invest them with a sense of urgency and feeling. The album succeeds
on musical and lyrical terms. ‘The Modern Age’ has a scintillating guitar solo and real drive,
but is also affecting in its chorus, ‘Leaving just in time, stay there for a while/ Rolling in the
ocean, trying to catch her eye’. Indeed, themes of failing relationships permeate the album’s
lyrics: ‘Alone we stand, together we fall apart’, Casablancas sings on ‘Someday’.
The lyrics, although never introspective, are unfailingly passionate. In ‘Trying Your Luck’,
another failed romance is blended into the scenery – ‘And storefronts rarely change/ At
least I’m on my own again/ Instead of anywhere with you’ – as Casablancas creates a
portrait of his New York, at times trivial, often frustrated. It can also be anthemic as well as
intimate. ‘Last Nite’ (with a riff shamelessly borrowed from Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’) is
an obvious precursor to hundreds of songs that might (generously) be described as generic
festival fodder, but it retains an emotional, even despairing edge despite its upbeat riff and
chorus.

There’s not a wasted moment on Is This It. Each song lasts less than four minutes, recalling
Brian Wilson’s comment on Rubber Soul, that ‘every song was a gas’: at no point does
anything feel extraneous or self-indulgent. Gordon Raphael, who produced Is This It
remembered Casablancas telling him, ‘Imagine you took a time machine into the future and
found a classic album from way in the past and really liked it’ – Is This It has that timeless
quality. It sounded fantastic sixteen years ago; it will still sound as good in sixty years’ time.

Photograph: Thomas Hank via Creative Commons

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