March 26, 2013, marks the release of the Strokes fifth album titled Comedown Machine. Hard to believe it’s been 12 years now since their first release…
I remember it like it was yesterday, hearing Is This It for the first time and being completely blown away. I knew at the time there was some hype floating around about some band being the saviors of rock. Please. At the time the only thing that was going to “save rock” (what a ridiculous term that is) was a new release from Led Zeppelin’s vaults, otherwise, at least in my musical world, there was nothing else going at the time. Call me a stodgy music snob if you will, but I was only listening to music made by bands long lost to the ravages of time (come to think of it I’m still that way). But here it was, The Strokes, with a 36 minute album that almost came and went without my notice.
Except, that is, the mere chance and perfect timing of the fact that my sister was graduating college around the same time (well, actually it was a year or two later but whatever). And with that came a small party in the late summer where she and her friends put this album on ye olde family stereo. And I heard Julian singing those simple melodies through what sounded like a distorted megaphone and I was completely and utterly hooked. There was something there, something that I liked immediately that clicked something within me. 11 songs of simple rock melodies, cut short and to the point, that took a hold of me in a deep and profound way.
Of course saying all that makes it seem like this was some sort of rock nirvana of a record. It wasn’t. There were no huge guitar solos or mind-bending jams. There was nothing truly out of the ordinary with this record. It was, if you could ignore all the hype at the time, sort of quietly unassuming, just a simple collection of songs with a nice rocking sound and clever, and at time humorous, lyrics. It just…was.
It felt so current and young, fresh amongst my world of classic album reissues and artists either long dead or long past their prime that I could not connect with no matter how much I wanted to. And then there were these guys. A bunch of 20-somethings rocking away on their simple riffs and melodies, singing about parties and friends and all sorts of subjects that were open to (my) interpretation. That was me. I was a 20-something rambling through life and wondering what was out there, seeking out what to do and where to do it. The Strokes, in their plain clothes jeans and t-shirts, guitars and shaggy hair, were, at least in my mind, just like me. Sure, I was nowhere near as cool, but hell, how can I compete with them? Still, they made a connection that continues to this day.
Is this what young guys felt like hearing Zeppelin back in the 70s, growing with them with each new album, being around the same age and having similar, albeit far less glamorously rock star, experiences?
“Is This It” kicks things off with a steady, simple beat that does everything it needs to in its two minutes and 35 seconds. Julian croons along like he does while the band lays down a solid framework that sets the tone not only for the album, but perhaps their entire career. Lazy, loping riffs take all the time in the world and just feel right. “Modern Age” raises the pace a bit while “Soma” is just…well, just awesome. Julian’s vocals are pushed into ultra lo-fi distorted territory amidst a killer rock riff that sounds like a modern day reading of some sort of long lost glam rock riff.
“Barely Legal” streams by with an awesome melody – and really the entire album, and the Strokes musical career is all based on those fantastic melodies. “Someday” follows and I could listen to it all day. Seriously, where are they coming up with this stuff? When I was working my way through this album way back in the day, this was one of the standout tracks for me. There was, at least to me, nothing else like it up to that point. It sounded so fresh and exciting, it was just real. “And now my fears, they come to me in threes..” yeah, I can dig that Jules. I can totally dig that.
In some ways The Strokes remind me a lot of the Velvet Underground, and not just because of the raw and lean glam rock leanings (and the Velvets were doing glam rock before that was even a thing). No, not just the sound, but a lot of the lyrics sound like small character studies that invite you into their world. Is the “Lisa” from “Alone Together” a real world reference to a friend, or girlfriend, of theirs? And is someone really drinking too much? Who knows? It made sense to me at the time and I made my own connections to the lyrics. That’s what’s great about music, it’s all up to you, the listener, to make a call about what something means.
“Last Night,” easily their biggest hit from the album – so much so it was later covered by Madonna – packs in all the melodies Julian can muster into one short song. And it’s great. Awesomely great. But as great as it is, “Hard to Explain” is where it’s at for me. The driving riffs and clockwork rhythm of the bass and drums is simply awesome, and with Julian crooning over top it becomes something just a little more. I remember cruising down the highway with this song cranked, I just couldn’t get enough of it. It has heart, soul, and everything else. If I could rock like this I would…but I can’t so I leave it to The Strokes to handle.
“When It Started” features a well place breakdown about midway through, along with some excellently melodic bass lines that dance in line with some fantastic vocals. And then there’s “Trying Your Luck,” jeez. One song after another they just keep bringing it. Maybe it’s the times I was going through back in 2001-2003, but these songs just all hit me so hard. They became a part of me, still are in fact. “Take It or Leave It” closes the album with a fury, in complete contrast to the almost laid back style of the album opener. Awesome.
Every time I listen to Is This It I am taken back to a simpler time. My early 20s were a time of uncertainty and filled with both excitement and fear for the future. Not much has changed as those feelings are still there. Perhaps they never go away. But throughout it all The Strokes have been there. Now, that may sound absolutely ridiculous to some of you. And hey, I understand. But if you were there back in 2001, and rock was looking like a sorry bunch of whining losers, well, The Strokes came along and made it cool again. With t-shirts, denim jackets and torn jeans they made it cool. And they’ve been making it cool all these years. Julian, Nick, Albert, Nikolai, Fab, thanks. Thanks for the times guys. Next time you’re around town I’ll buy you all a beer.
It’s on me.
- Is This It – 2:35
- The Modern Age – 3:32
- Soma – 2:38
- Barely Legal – 3:54
- Someday – 3:07
- Alone, Together – 3:12
- Last Nite – 3:18
- Hard to Explain – 3:48
- When It Started – 3:36
- Trying Your Luck – 3:28
- Take It or Leave It – 3:16