Thursday, April 21, 2011

That Was It

Speaking of the Strokes, New York's finest continued their comeback at Coachella (after recently releasing their first album in five years), although the tracks from their breakthrough debut Is This It drew the most elated audience response. "Hard To Explain," "Last Nite," "The Modern Age," "Someday," "New York City Cops," and "Take It Or Leave It" all sounded so fresh, so relevant, so freakin' cool, it was mind-boggling to realize that these songs were recorded (prepare to feel old) TEN YEARS AGO. The Strokes truly set the blueprint for the indie-rock revolution of the 2000s; many baby bands playing Coachella '11 owe them a huge debt, and a huge amount of respect. And their Coachella concert, with sunglassed-at-night, trucker-hatted singer Julian Casablancas in fine surly form and Albert Hammond Jr.'s distinctive guitar as tinny and angular and, well, Strokes-y as ever, was a welcome reminder of their influence and impact. 04/18/11

I saw the Strokes at Coachella in, I want to say, 2002? They were playing in the middle of the day on the main stage, a very short set composed of the entirety of Is This It with, I want to say, two new songs. One of those songs was "Meet Me In The Bathroom," which later appeared on Room On Fire. I remember standing there in the crowd at a fair distance and enjoying the set in a mild enough fashion - they played their songs with an admirable degree of precision, but they seemed a bit lost on a giant festival stage. It must be said, however, that no one really looks good in the midday slot at a festival.

Listening now to Is This It, I am struck as much by the simplicity of the music as anything else. I'm not a musician, I want to stress: it's been a decade since I held a guitar for an extended amount of time, and even longer since I beat a drum. (I was a moderate duffer.) But listening to their earliest songs, the purposefully sparse style is nevertheless impressive. There aren't very many guitar parts on the album that you couldn't play with a basic knowledge of power chords and some simple scales. Give me some tablature and I could probably figure out the rhythm guitar for "Last Night" in ten minutes. But it sounds pretty damn nice all the same.

The production is crisp and naked in a way that positively screams New York: no lush Los Angeles atmosphere, no British warmth, everything is bright and even tinny, very trebly with not a lot in the way of bottom end. If the album sounds like anything, it sounds like Television's Marquee Moon. To my ears that album has one of the most fascinating sounds of any rock album ever recorded. Television maybe weren't the best songwriters (I'll get pilloried for that in the comments) but they got by on a hypnotic degree of atmosphere and some truly stunning arrangements. At a certain point I don't think it even matters whether or not the members of the Strokes are or were as well-versed in rock history as a lot of critics (including myself) always gave them credit for being. Either the Strokes knew Television and the New York Dolls or they heard all the bands who were influenced by them - the result is a wash. Anyone with half an ear for music history can identify where the disparate parts of the sound came from, either first-, second-, or third-hand. Milo (in the comments to the last post) was right to point out the Cars as an influence - I had never made that connection before, and I quite like the Cars. But I suspect that someone, somewhere along the line - perhaps producer Gordon Raphael - had to have heard Marquee Moon. All the details, right down to Julian Casablancas' omnipresent fuzzy vocal filter standing in for Tom Verlaine's croon, are just so dead on that it would stand as an amazing coincidence of convergent evolution if the Strokes had arrived at the same sound without any prompting.

The Strokes have been around as a cultural force for ten years now. Their new album really isn't much to write home about but they've been met by rapturous crowds everywhere on their current tour. People like the Strokes an awful lot. This is funny, for anyone with a good memory of the last ten years. Is This It was hot for a while but their second album - the aforementioned Room On Fire - was a disappointment, commercially if not critically. Their third album, First Impressions of Earth, received negative reviews and was met with wide indifference. by 2006 people were writing the band's obituary - maybe they had influenced a great deal of the music that followed, but they seemed trapped in amber themselves, of their moment but unable to move beyond a certain image suspended in time.

Personally, I quite liked Room On Fire. For all the complaints of it being a retread of their first LP, I thought their sophomore effort was an improvement in every way. For one thing, the songs were better. There were a number of standout tracks on their first album, but it feels overlong at 30 minutes. Room On Fire, however, is strong throughout and ends with the one-two punch of "The Way It Is" and "The End Has No End," two of the best rock songs of the last decade. "The End Has No End" also gets credit for the fact that the video is an unannounced and completely sincere sequel to 2001:


Anyway, I liked their second album, but I loved their third album. First Impressions of Earth was the type of album I didn't think the Strokes had it in them to make. It was different - longer, with many types of songs, denser arrangements and heavier riffs. I listened to it a lot when it first came out and I still go back to it. I thought, this was a fantastic album, this is change, this is the kind of stylistic evolution that people like to hear. And then no one else liked it. It got some polite notices from the usual suspects but a savage 5.9 from Pitchfork. The air went out of the balloon, the band drifted apart. Albert Hammond. Jr. went off to do his awful solo stuff. (I saw him open up for Bloc Party when Bloc Party was touring behind A Weekend In The City. Completely innocuous but instantly forgettable.) Casablancas released a solo album too.

What i didn't understand at the time was that, regardless of my reasons for liking their third album, the band was in a torturous bind. Normal rock bands are expected to change, to evolve and to grow. We all know what's supposed to happen because we all know the critical shorthand: Pablo Honey becomes The Bends becomes OK Computer; Please Please Me to Revolver to The Beatles. We expect our great bands to be smart bands, filled with smart people who want to stretch and who chafe at any self-imposed limits. Even when they don't quite make it we applaud the effort anyway (see: Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys). But the Strokes couldn't play that game. They had not rose to popularity solely by virtue of an acclaimed debut album. They were popular because of what they represented at a certain point in pop music history: they were rock stars, they had that swag. The moment they had to try, the moment they needed to either put up or shut up, they lost a bit of their glamour. The difficult second album? The arduous third album? These were not the kinds of narratives that you could stick on a band like the Strokes, because their whole appeal was anti-narrative. They were cool. They didn't sweat. The moment we caught them working at it, the spell was lifted.

It is an inescapable fact that the Strokes are wealthy children of privilege. This makes them, by any stretch of the imagination, fairly despicable creatures. It's hard not to hate them just a little bit when you learn that Casablancas met Nikolai Frature at the Lycée Français de New York, for instance. There is a class element to their appeal: their image is composed entirely of signifiers pointing to their class status. Urban petit bourgeoisie could see in the group something to which to aspire, an image of cool made of smoke rings, Pabst Blue Ribbon and po-faced Members Only jackets. The Strokes didn't invent hipsters, but the existence of the Strokes crystallized the category of "hipster" as a concrete object, either for aspiration or derision.

Look around record stores and takes a glance at the people buying contemporary rock records - not Nickleback or Coldplay, but the good stuff: Spoon, TV On The Radio, the National, Neko Case, Fleet Foxes. Who's buying the good critically acclaimed and interesting rock records? Middle class white people. College students. NPR listeners. Intellectuals. Contemporary rock has dropped out of the mainstream and into a solidly upper-middle-class socioeconomic niche. Listening to rock now isn't as simple as plugging in your FM radio, it's a lifestyle choice. It's fashion. It's contingent. It's identity politics. The idea of a rock star coming up now and making a bald-faced populist appeal without sacrificing their credibility is simply laughable. Credibility matters, but credibility these days isn't tied to integrity, it's tied to the consistency of your brand.

I can't lay all these sins at the Strokes' feet. There's a ton of good rock music being made right now that doesn't fit neatly on any kind of hipster fashion axis. But rock doesn't occupy anywhere near the central position in our culture that it once did. (Hip-hop doesn't either, anymore - good hip-hop has become just as much of a niche as good rock. It's all balladry, dance pop and R&B. That's the cultural center, because that is the kind of music most easily marketed towards children.) Perhaps that was inevitable - nothing lasts for ever. Established forms always grow in complexity and increased self-referentiality as they approach obsolescence. I hear the Strokes and I can't help but think that the supposed "renaissance" of rock in the last decade was also a definite restriction. The bands can say: now we know who the audience is. It's not kids, it's not casual listeners who don't get the allusions and post-ironic genre signifiers and the post-post-ironic-but-not-emo-new-sincerity. It's people who can dress like us. Find a band that dresses like you and follow them. Dress in casual blue jeans and deceptively expensive cardigan sweaters. That's it.

No comments :