Monday, February 21, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 95 - The Strokes

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Last Monday, when I first put on the Strokes' debut album Is This It, that question mirrored my exact thoughts. 

Perhaps I had let my expectations get the better of me; I remember seeing Is This It place very highly on a lot of "Best of the Decade" lists last January, and in my mind, I already had some sort of idea of what the Strokes would sound like. Is This It barreled by at such a breakneck pace that it seemed slight, almost insubstantial, not at all what I thought the music would be. 

That first disappointment soured my initial judgment, and I expected to be thoroughly annoyed with the Strokes by the end of the week. But instead, the opposite happened. I began to drum my hands on the steering wheel while listening to it in the car, and began to anticipate and completely revel in each guitar riff. Getting used to the Strokes' music was a bit like jumping into cold water - the shock was very offputting at first, but once I got that through my system, I realized that it could be quite invigorating. 

I don't think I'll ever become a huge fan of the "short, fast and simple" aesthetic that the Strokes have appropriated. But listening to the band this week did give me a bit more appreciation of those sort of songs. When the music is so direct in its aims, it's often easy to forget that it still takes a good deal of skill to put together songs that are that blunt. Paradoxically, it must be pretty difficult to play a song that sounds so simple. 

WEEK 95 


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Absolutely nothing, except the vague idea that the Strokes were absolutely adored around the beginning of the last decade. Hell, I didn't even know what the band was going to sound like. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Is This It (2001) every day this week. I also listened to Room on Fire (2003) and First Impressions of Earth (2006) three times each. 

WHAT I LIKED: The first song off of the Strokes' first album, "Is This It," is a great song, and one that I liked unconditionally the first time I heard it. It also sounds like nothing else on the rest of the album: the pace is leisurely, the lyrics are rather melodic and emotive, and the energy is somewhat restrained. Overall, it gives me the feeling of walking through a large city on a rainy day. I wish the band had done more songs like this.

Once I got used to the fact that the rest of Is This It was a bunch of loud and fast two-minute guitar riffs with the occasional song thrown in the mix, I learned to like it all right. "Someday" is a great breakup song, for instance, and tracks like "Barely Legal" are so enthusiastic that I couldn't help but like them. Is This It doesn't pretend to be anything other than a collection of short punchy rock songs, and first I thought that this meant the album was lacking in depth. But it's a pretty great collection of short punchy rock songs, and one that stands up to multiple listens. Even by the end of the week I was still getting excited every time the chorus to "New York City Cops" came on.

As for the two other Strokes albums, I think I liked their peaks more than anything on Is This It, even though neither of them could beat the sheer consistency of the band's debut on a track-by-track basis. On Room on Fire, "Reptilia" and "12:51" both have singing guitars and great hooks - they're almost more pop than rock, but this isn't a bad thing, and there's more to latch onto than the repetition of the more punk-based Is This It.

First Impressions of Earth finds the band trying to branch out, with middling results. Still, while the crazy bass line on "Juicebox," or the synth-strings on "Ask Me Anything" may not operate under the standard Strokes aesthetic, I found myself enjoying these songs as a breath of fresh air from the fairly small bag of tricks that the band used on their first two albums. 

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: The Strokes got a little grating by the end of the week. That's nothing against their songs, most of which stood the "listen-every-day" test pretty well. But the whole aesthetic got annoying, and by the twentieth song that starts with a "DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN" on the guitar with a similarly repetitive drum beat, I was ready to put on something else. Anything else, really. "Last Nite" is a fun song, but is it really that different from any other song from the Strokes' first two albums? By the end of the week, I was in a weird position of simultaneously really enjoying each individual track, while getting really tired of the album as a whole. The parts might be better than their sum total, in this case.

Maybe it was my listening venue. The Strokes probably sound better at a party with a bunch of attractive twenty-somethings, or as the soundtrack to a Crazy Night in New York City. There was a bit of cognitive dissonance when listening to the Strokes while drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

And while I appreciated the Strokes' change of pace on Room on Fire and First Impressions of Earth, for every experiment that worked, there's at least two duds. "Under Control" felt like a bad imitation of the Strokes on karaoke night, and then there's the inexplicable Irish accent on "Evening Sun" or the sheer aimlessness of "15 Minutes." The Strokes' two-and-a-half-minute song structure got old this week, but it seems like when they branch out they don't know what to replace it with.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The Strokes' new album Angles comes out in March. I probably won't be buying it on release day, but if reactions are largely positive I might be willing to check it out.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: I hadn't heard any Strokes song this week, so I'm not sure what you may have heard. Here's "Alone Together," one of my favorites from Is This It.


Despite the synthesized strings (or perhaps because of them?), this song is strangely moving.