Sacred Cow Slaughter 1: The Strokes

If there was ever a time that rock needed saving, it wasn’t 2001; sure, to the always ignorant cynics looking back into 60s and 70s back-catalogs to suffice their urges to masturbate over claustrophobic studio conditions and nostalgic blasts of “classic rock”, sure, the end was, and probably still is near. Fortunately for anyone with an ounce of sense, rock has a while before it needs saving (I wish I could say the same for Hip Hop). No, if rock ever needed a savior, it was the late 80s, and a handful of bands ranging from the overrated but still influential Nirvana to the power pop madness that was Weezer (Remember when Rivers Cuomo could write?) made sure 80s Hair Metal didn’t take over the scene with over-active finger-tapping and vapid sexual innuendo.

No, in 2001, the Velvet Underground still had, and probably still have yet to be topped, just as does Television, the Rolling Stones, and every other list of ill-conceived influences that mainstream critics labeled these New Yorkers with. Cries of “best band since the Stones” or “better than VU” weren’t just unfounded; looking back now in 2010, they seem just plain ridiculous. You can name a couple bands that might approach the legacy of such kings, Sonic Youth could arguably overtake Television as Art Rock kings and Radiohead might be about the closest thing to the hype-train of the Beatles that us young un’s will ever get, but the Strokes are not among these kings.

Julian Casablancas and crew have made one great album, one good one, and one messy, average one. Nothing more, nothing less. This Is It is an eternally pleasing masterpiece of melody, rhythm, and no-non-sense songwriting, Room On Fire didn’t really even try to be anything different, and First Impressions was a mess of bad songwriting decisions. Many compare Casablancas to Lou Reed or Frank Black, and there is a bit of a comparison to be sure; he has the stumbling charisma of Reed and has the groaning, primordial throat of Black, but what separates him from these two heroes of Alternative music, Casablancas is a bit too sure of himself for his own good.

In fact, much of the Strokes problems stem from Casablancas inflated sense of self. The guitarists plug out straight-forward, ever delightful guitar lines like they just bought them from Joe Santiago and the one-two that is the bass and drum rhythm section are about as good as it gets. The instrumental portions of the Strokes are easily one of the best in Alternative music (well, at least on Is This It and Room on Fire they are), which gives me the impression that most critics don’t really listen much. This is pretty obvious from lots of things that you can see with the vapid recesses of, say, Rolling Stone, but honestly the two biggest problems of the Strokes stem from the same source: Julian Casablancas.

The man can sing, the man can perform, and I’ll be damned if his live acts leave me wondering if even is aware that people are watching him, but the man cannot write a song to save his life. His lyrics say almost nothing apart from the confirmation that indeed, they are from New York and that he listened to The Replacements “Unsatisfied” just as much as any given fan has. Most of it’s non-sense (“Don’t be a coconut/God is trying to talk to you” springs immediately to mind), but Anthony Kiedis he is not. In fact, that’s a good comparison to make; both are incredibly overrated, vapid bands whose hype levels only match the egos with which they play. Both had their good days (Mother’s Milk, Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik), both had their terrible days (Stadium Arcadium), and both have crackerjack rhythm sections (well, if you keep Flea on a leash that is) with frontmen that espouse either non-sense or nothing at all and refuse to push their bands into any new, more daring territory.

Much like Interpol, a band whose continued adherence to slavish imitations of their own selves, the Strokes have about as much potential as any band can have, but with a critical press that has hyped them up so highly that they see no problem with their static directions and a frontman who’s a bit too conceited for his own good, they’ve become another case of Debut Deja vu; an absolute refusal to move into any new challenging direction, choosing instead to milk their debut’s critical good tidings for years to come. Let’s just hope their fourth album can rattle them out of their zombie-like state, because if Is This It is any indication, they might just be able to top the Stones. As it stands now, they just think they have.

by Trevor “This is it?” Johnson

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1 Comment

  1. The First Sacred Cow To Be Slaughtered Is… « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Sacred Cow Slaughter 1: The Strokes by Trevor Johnson […]

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