The Strokes- Is This It
Written on January 13, 2013
“Well it was only one night, but it was fucking strange”…
This one line from the song “New York City Cops” completely epitomizes the whole musical aesthetic of The Strokes 2001 debut album Is This It, and the raw sound and attitude of the album made it one of the cornerstone albums that revived the garage and indie rock movement in the early 2000’s.
The songs on Is This It play like a series of short vignettes that chronicle New York City nightlife from the perspective of a group of young, rebellious, New York socialites, who have been effortlessly and obliviously living this lifestyle their whole lives, and this careless attitude is carefully crafted into every note and lyric on the album; however, the lyrical content is not written to brag about this lifestyle, it is simply describing the events that are clearly ordinary and customary for the band, and this makes sense given the backgrounds of the band members. Most of the band met at the prestigious Dwight School in Manhattan, and Julian Casablancas, the band’s vocalist and frontman, is the son of “business mogul John Casablancas, the founder of Elite Model Management, and Jeanette Christiansen, a former model and Miss Denmark. His paternal grandfather, Fernando Casablancas, was a well-known textile businessman” (Wikipedia).
As mentioned, the sound of the album is very raw. It almost sounds like a live album that was recorded in the studio, and it basically is, as the band used very little studio patchwork when they recorded it. All the guitar work is very distorted, which combined with Julian Casablancas’ vocals really drive the album. The end result is an uncompromisingly raw and unpolished album with a touch of oblivious sleaziness that is infectiously catchy at the same time.
The album contains 11 tracks, and it flies by, as its run time is just over 35-minutes. All the songs have the same feel, but they are also diverse enough that they are completely discernible from each other. For me, all the songs are aces but there are certainly some standouts. “Someday,” “Hard to explain,” and “Last Night” all broke into the top 40 on the US modern rock charts, and they are all great, but my personal favorite two tracks from the album are “Barley Legal” and “New York City Cops,” as I think they are best representation of the New York City nightlife aesthetic that the album is based upon.
“Barely Legal” takes a page from The Rolling Stones sleaze rock play book, and the meaning of the song is very clear:
“I wanna steal your innocence/ To me my life, it just don’t make any sense/ Those strange manners, I loved ‘em so/ ‘Why won’t you wear your new trench coat?’/ I just want to misbehave/ I just want to be your slave/ Oh, you ain’t never had nothing I wanted, but…/ I want it all”
Although the meaning of the song is clear if it is analyzed, it doesn’t come across as overtly disreputable, and it really just further drives home the theme of the album that is so obliviously laced throughout every song.
“New York City Cops” features very distorted guitar work from Nick Valensi, and Julian Casablancas’ vocals are very raw, yet even with the distortion and rawness, the chorus of the song (“New York City Cops/ New York City Cops/ They ain’t too smart”) is by far the most catchy and infectious of the entire album.
Before I close this out, I want to use this album as an example to illustrate that indie rock has become more of a genre and sound than an indication of who is releasing a band’s records. As mentioned, Is This It was a huge part of the indie rock revival that started in the early 2000’s, and many fans and most major music sources cite The Strokes as an indie rock band; however, Is This It was released on RCA records, and RCA won a bidding war between several major labels to sign the band before the release of the album. An indie band by definition originally meant that the band’s records were released by an independent label, yet RCA is the farthest thing in the world from an independent rock label. All in all, it doesn’t really matter; I just want to make the point that the term “indie rock” now has much more to do with the sound of an album than who is releasing it.
The Stokes’ Is This It is a brilliant album, and it produces two major accomplishments— one that was intentional, and one that just came as second nature to the band. First, The Strokes intentionally wanted to create a very raw, live sounding album, and they absolutely accomplish this. Secondly, and more interesting to me, The Strokes unintentionally create a very visual listening experience that is so vivid that the listener can almost imagine himself living out the of the band’s New York City nightlife escapades, and these two elements make the album a complete success.
Upon the release of Is This It, the album was compared and often criticized for sounding too derivative of the band Television. They do sound similar, but Television is much more of an art post-punk band than a garage-indie rock band, and I think Television has much more in common with the Talking Heads than they do with The Strokes. The Strokes commented on this by saying that they weren’t familiar with Television, and their primary influence was The Velvet Underground. I can see the slight connection there, but personally (If I were to make a comparison) I would compare Is This It to The Rolling Stones’ post-sleaze rock album Exile On Main Street. Both albums are raw, unpolished, have a touch of sleaziness to them, and they both have this perfect carelessness to them that make them almost carefully perfect.
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