Now that the current retro-garage scene is several years old, the day of reckoning is at hand: Who will endure and who won’t? On ”Elephant,” the White Stripes illustrated the ways in which a band can expand the parameters of the genre — and overcome its own instrumental limitations — by incorporating hillbilly-love duets and unplugged delicacy into their guitar-grenade attack. For others, though, the forecast is much cloudier. The latest great white guitar-band hopes — Stellastarr*, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes — turn the dank clamminess of ’80s alt-rock into little more than stylized nostalgia, while the much-touted Hives already seem on the verge of becoming a novelty act.
With Room on Fire, the Strokes find themselves straddling the line between progress and stasis. What a short, strange trip it’s been for them: In the course of a few quick years, the band has hurtled from virtually unknown club act to major-label signees to unforeseen leaders of an anti-teen-pop movement. Completing the quickened-pace cycle of their career, they even have a false start under their belts: ”Room on Fire” was to be helmed by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) until band and producer parted ways after presumed creative differences.
The aftershocks of the Strokes’ abrupt rise and minor stumble are evident on ”Room on Fire”: They already sound like jaded rock stars who’ve endured the music-biz wars. ”Is This It,” the band’s raggedly right 2001 launch, also affected a world-weary tone yet managed, miraculously, to still be exuberant. ”Room on Fire” (produced by Gordon Raphael, who also helmed the debut) largely picks up where its predecessor left off. The first track, ”What Ever Happened?,” starts with a guitar throb straight out of Stevie Nicks’ ”Edge of Seventeen.” But once that moment passes, the Strokes’ sound is essentially unchanged. Every component from the last album is revived: singer Julian Casablancas’ distorted, muffled bray; the defiantly low-budget production; the sonic grime and imperturbable attitude that hark back to three decades of coolly diffident New York underground rock. And like ”Is This It,” the new album barely makes it past the half-hour mark — a small and welcome development amid a barrage of bloated discs.
Yet anyone who invested anything in ”Is This It” is destined to walk away from ”Room on Fire” a little disappointed. Too many of the songs are patched-together riffs — some lurching into reggae turns for no obvious reason — rather than the taut, punchy melodies of the debut. In what could be construed as a misguided attempt to maintain their downtown cred in light of selling nearly a million ”It” albums, drummer Fabrizio Moretti plays something that sounds like cardboard boxes rather than his kit. Casablancas’ lyrics, most of which chronicle one ill-fitting relationship after another, are often so personal and elliptical that they don’t make any sense (”My uncle would say things would change when he’s dead”).
As if to compensate for such lapses, the Strokes embrace a distinctly old-fashioned idea — that the best rock is the most stripped down and musically pure, made by a five-piece band without rapping, Christian-rock overtones, or DJs. Such traditionalism would be lethal for most, but there’s still something undeniably appealing about the Strokes. They’re raw and corrosive, yet surprisingly intimate. ”I Can’t Win” is as sharp as anything on the debut; the heartbreaker ”Under Control” has an exquisite, languid sway. The way Casablancas’ voice intensifies from ennui to muffled rage in ”The End Has No End,” in tandem with the song’s clipped, choppy beat, is marvelous. On the deliciously new wave-y ”12:51,” where they morph into a Cars tribute band, guitarist Nick Valensi turns his instrument into a serpentine synthesizer.
For all the album’s thrills, ”Room on Fire” amounts to a less vivid Xerox of ”Is This It,” and it’s worrisome that the Strokes are repeating themselves so early in their lifetime. Like an alarming number of their peers, they seem most interested in resuscitating the past for a generation unfamiliar with the antecedents. Exactly where rock should go at this point in its nearly 50-year history is hard to say, but retro garage is starting to feel like a trip to a wax museum — an amusing diversion that shouldn’t be mistaken for the main destination.