I was absorbing the Strokes’ Is This It, the first album by some New York mopheads who just a year ago were bashing out variations on pre-alternative alternative music (Velvet Underground, garage rock, and so on) in clubs. They’ve been the talk of the industry since vaulting from obscurity to the center of a major-label bidding war in a matter of months. ”Is This It” bows down before all the trademarks of pre-1977 rock: off-kilter guitar solos, half-buried vocals (à la ”Louie, Louie”), attitude-heavy slurring (by singer Julian Casablancas), primitive tom-tom rhythms (shades of the Velvets’ Moe Tucker), and the raw, muddy sonics of garage-band 45s.
All of which would be unbearably derivative and somewhat ridiculous in 2001 if it weren’t for two things. First, consider the energy that the Strokes apply to these hallmarks. They may recall another era, but there’s nothing polite or retro about them. Their punching-bag songs (”Someday,” ”Take It or Leave It”) overcome the muddy, low-budget production. Clocking in at a little over a half hour (talk about old school…), ”Is This It” flies by in a blur of sooty grit and grind.
Secondly, the Strokes’ music may be aggressive and grainy, but it’s not nihilistic like rap metal; as such, it seemed like constructive accompaniment to the ongoing television footage of fires, body bags, twisted metal, and mangled landscapes. While listening to the Strokes, I found myself flashing back to Britney Spears’ dances-with-snakes performance at the MTV Video Music Awards the week before — so symbolic of the over-the-top pop of the last few years, and now so absurdly incongruous. I don’t know if Strokes is the future of anything, or if such hype even matters at this point. But at the moment, it just feels right, and sometimes that’s enough.