Slapping The Strokes

Friday, January 13, 2006

Otis Hart downs a quart of haterade while deconstructing The Strokes' new record.

Blissfully silent since 2003, The Strokes are back, ringing in the new year and with Pavlovian effect, shaking the gatekeepers of hipster hell from their holiday slumber.

These originators of the unoriginal who made it fashionable to pretend not to care about fashion (or music or nepotism or ...) while leading the way in fashion (and music and nepotism) have been lying low since their second LP, "Room on Fire," hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200.

The quintet made infrequent appearances on Gawker Stalker (a web site that trails celebs in New York City), but for the most part were inclined to let the bands swimming in their wake attract attention. And while Julian Casablancas and teammates twiddled their manicured thumbs, their competition lapped them. Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads and Interpol all released records in 2004 that equaled or bettered anything from garage rock's poster boys. And now bands like Bloc Party, Editors and Maximo Park are threatening to render the once ubiquitous band irrelevant.

I presumed Casablancas & Co. were huddled away devising that career-defining third album -- a "Velvet Underground," a "London Calling," or a "Fear of Music," if you will -- something none of those up-and-coming bands had a chance to do yet. Both "Is This It" and "Room on Fire" had occasional moments of brilliance that validated the celebrity gossip, and a knock-out third album might have forced critics to examine the band from a historical standpoint, as a true harbinger instead of a passing fad.

When discussing the Strokes' "First Impressions of Earth," the Talking Heads' record is actually relevant -- or rather, the title "Fear of Music." "First Impressions" is a dud, a painful chokefest full of haphazard ado about nothing, and a smug one at that. The precision that fueled early hits like "The Modern Age"; the hook that rescued "12:51"; the impetuosity of "Last Nite": it's gone, probably for good.

The Strokes have moved on from imitating great bands like the Velvet Underground to subtly incorporating novelty. "Juicebox," the first single (it can only get better from here, FM listeners!), rips off the bassline from the theme song from "Peter Gunn," while "Razorblade" lifts a snippet from Barry Manilow's "Mandy" ("You came and you gave without taking" transforms into "Oh no, your feelings are more important..." On "Fear of Sleep," Casablancas sounds like Bono after an all-night whale watch. Nothing deflects criticism like the appearance of not caring.

Except maybe pre-emptive strikes. It's almost as if Casablancas can smell the player-hating from his penthouse apartment. He tries to turn it back on the audience with "On The Other Side": "I hate them all, I hate them all / I hate myself / For hating them / So drink some more." A valid attempt at transferring the blame, Julian, but hipsters are well-schooled in the art of reverse psychology.

On "Ask Me Anything," he destroys the album's best hook (a digitized cello vaguely reminiscent of 1980s disco-savant Arthur Russell) by repeating "I've got nothing to say" 19 times. This song could have brought down "Pet Sounds."

As we learned from Ashlee Simpson, a keen marketing campaign can salvage pretty much anything this side of Gary Glitter. But after recording and releasing an album like "First Impressions of Earth," it's tempting to think that The Strokes have resigned the idea of keeping up with their contemporaries (that's right, contemporaries) and have settled for B-list sightings, open bars and plus-one's for the rest of their lives.

Winners never try, anyway, right?

See the sanitized video for "Juicebox" here: --128--mp4 .mov

asap reporter OTIS HART likes the Billy Squier song "The Stroke."

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