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Room to Grow

 

The Strokes: Room on Fire

RCA, 2003

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: October 24, 2003

By Laurence Station

As far as bang for the buck goes -- the ratio of media-salivating exposure to sum creative output -- the Strokes blew everyone away in 2002. With a mere 12 songs to the band's credit, the New York City garage rock quintet became the It band du jour following the 2001 release of Is This It; an apt title, considering the hyperbole surrounding the solid but hardly soul-changing collection of ragged guitar-oriented tracks concerning lethargy and spent desire in the Big Apple. Ryan Adams, who writes more songs daily than the Strokes will probably manage over the next decade, has got to be scratching his head. What's so special about these guys?

Good question. Offering the old "quality not quantity" argument just doesn't hold water. Is This It had some standout tracks ("Hard to Explain" and "Someday" come to mind), but the apathetic vocal delivery of singer Julian Casablancas and the earnest guitar lines -- too sloppy for The Velvet Underground but not quite spiky enough for Television -- quickly grew tiresome. It's difficult to build a career rehashing the same basic glamorous and skuzzy rock template (just ask Courtney Love). In the midst of cresting boy-band mania and the cyclical desire to take modern music back to the basics, the Strokes were tapped by the press as the Band That Would Save Rock (someone has to, right?).

Room on Fire, then, is the backlash album -- again, presuming the expected cycle holds. It's almost inalterably set up for failure. Sophomore album? Check. Unrealistic critical and fan expectations? Double check. Young band not given enough downtime for reflection and maturation, due to incessant touring and other promotional demands? Triple check. Give credit to the Strokes, then, for avoiding a minefield disaster. Room on Fire is actually a smidge better than Is This It, revealing a greater stylistic diversity without resorting to overblown studio histrionics. Granted, when it was revealed that Nigel Godrich -- he of the Radiohead, Beck, God's Personal Angelic Choir resume -- was helming the boards for the band's second album, there was a definite sense that the Strokes had succumbed to the palpable pressure and would put out a woefully misguided experimental record, or do a total 180 and go electronic. It didn't take long for Godrich and the Strokes to part ways, and one presumes that whatever noise the collaboration produced will turn up someday on an overpriced retrospective release.

Bringing back Is This It producer Michael Raphael, the Strokes refine their familiar sound while branching out just enough to manage a little artistic growth in the process. Room on Fire begins with Casablancas claiming "I wanna be forgotten," and that jaded, wasted, couldn't-care-less attitude is all the reinforcement listeners need that the band hasn't changed its outlook all that much. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. shine here, cranking out darkly appealing guitar lines, while bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti keep up an appropriately wobbly, disjointed rhythm.

"12:51," a throwaway radio single about hanging out and getting loaded, provides a vapid, amusing contrast to the desperate rocker "You Talk Way Too Much," with Casablancas complaining "Give me some time / I just need a little time." "Automatic Stop," featuring a Seconal-woozy ska vibe, and the biggest revelation, "Under Control," a swinging, '50s-style love ballad with a hint of Sam Cooke, suggest a band willing to take modest, but no less intriguing, chances with its sound and style. Following on the heels of these highlights, however, is the turgid, pointless "The End Has No End," which wastes some great bass lines by overdoing cheesy, New Wave-ish keyboards to no good effect.

At just over thirty minutes, though, the album does exactly what it's supposed to do: Rock without overstaying its welcome. Room on Fire is the sound of a tighter, more focused band: Clearly, the apathetic posturing is more affectation than internalized way of life. The Strokes have successfully cleared the formidable sophomore slump, and while their future may be anything but assured, it's refreshing to hear that the band hasn't run out and hired a full orchestra to back them on select tracks. This is simple, dirty guitar rock, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that.

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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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