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Strokes - The Strokes' 'Is This It?'

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 13 / 1 / 2010

Strokes - The Strokes' 'Is This It?'


The Strokes' 2001 debut album 'Is This It?' appeared on many of the recent Albums of the Decade polls. Jeff Thiessen looks again at it and debates against it

You know for all intents and purposes, in hindsight, this last decade was a pretty likable one. My Giants finally won a Superbowl. I finally "got" 'Trout Mask Replica' (even if that made me hate it even more), had a first date where a girl was okay with my suggestion we dine and dash, and I started what has become a considerably long 'Seinfeld' Scene It victory streak. I also learned many lessons. Consuming twenty-eight white Russians in a night doesn’t make one any more ‘dude-like’, it just makes haggard, slacker girls more I don’t know.....tolerable for more than five minutes, instead of the usual fraction of that. I learned that being a patriot doesn’t have to include applauding Canadian-created beer (in my world of beer-guzzling, I would be considered total Euro-Trash). I learned that girls really into Ween are completely fucked in the head (hint: if a girl responds with ‘Boognish’ when you ask her if she’s ever been part of any church, get her to make you a mixtape and then run for the hills). I learned that 'Goodbye, Lenin!' gets exponentially better with every passing year, and I learned that 'Twelve Monkeys' gets sillier with every passing week. Finally, I learned that life is short, although it’s long enough that alienating long-time friends through a brutal game of Risk just doesn’t seem proportionately beneficial. One thing I haven’t learned, or embraced, or even been able to comprehend though, is the inclusion of the Strokes 'Is This It?' album on nearly every decade ‘best of’ list. And it not only makes the list. It consistently cracks the top five, in a couple occasions I even saw it claim the top spot. This despite the fact that there are about nineteen people in the entire world who still make an effort to actually put on Strokes music. I’d be lying if I said seeing these recent accolades didn’t piss me off, and I’d be telling the truth if I said up until about five weeks ago when these lists started falling out of every possible outlet desperate for a comprehensive decade review, that I had completely forgotten about those guys. I’m not exaggerating for the sake of this article, I seriously had forgotten they even existed, and this was a real sustained abandonment. It honestly says a lot, when I have many details involving the absurdly bad rap metal outfit hed P.E.(Yes that’s their actual name, yes it’s appropriate when considering the band’s music) stored in my noggin, yet recent references to 'Is This It?' jogged a memory that up till this point, was completely devoid of those New Yorkers. If this album was one of the top ten best albums of the last ten years, then that sets up sort of a precedent. I mean why stop there? If revisionist rock filtered through mainstream, conglomerate, cooler than thou sensibilities is the order of the hour, shouldn’t Oasis’ 'Don’t Believe the Truth' be a frontrunner as well? Hey, the Von Bondies are pretty terrific at channelling that ol Dee-troit motor-city madness, complete with a pretty big dash of contemporary manufactured anxiety just in case we start to think they be stupid or something. Why not give their hip revival the reflective time of day? And while we’re at it, Brian Jonestown Massacre are making it cool to like 'The White Album' again, so let’s give them the gold medal, for not reminding us why we need reminders. 'Is This It?' could’ve easily been called the best record of the year in 2001, even though it clearly wasn’t. But it would have been understandable, labelling it as such. By that point, everyone who didn’t like rap was so goddamn sick of the 'Marshal Mathers' LP being blasted out of every single driving car the previous year, had no choice but to flee to the polar opposite of that seminal hip-hop release, and that escape would definitely had led most into the Strokes waiting arms. If I were to be put in a time machine, and read a year-end piece on 2001, it wouldn’t anger me one iota to see 'Is This It?' being named best album of the year, because this industry is full of knee-jerk reactions, especially one that boasts a two-headed monster (white rapper sells ten million copies + a public yearning for hooky rock n roll in a distilled, classic form that whose sole goal was to make it ‘cool again’ = The Strokes greatest trick is making us believe they never really existed). I, however, just don’t see any excuse or viable reason to actually suggest this album is among our decade's finest, and I’m using some pretty basic, objective criteria here. None of it is creative, but you know what, when determining something as massive as the most revered music of the last ten years, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel in regards to how we figure this shit out. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a checklist. For example, someone like Killing Joke clearly didn’t make a ton of potent commentary on the world we’re living in. They might get a two out of ten on first criteria, but they thrive to such high degrees in others, that it more than puts them in elite status when analyzing their actual effect they’ve had on music and the public at large. You dig? Okay, then let’s get to it. First question we should ask ourselves: Does the music say anything of substance? Well that’s obviously a fat no. Look, I see 'Is This It?' surrounded by albums on these lists that have literally changed how people viewed the world ('Kid A', 'Sea Change'etc), and from what I can recall, the people who loved 'Is This It?' might’ve changed their general perception on designer sunglasses, but even that might be a stretch. Second question we should ask ourselves: Is the music they released still influencing and being ripped off like all great records? Well, this would have to be a moot point I suppose, since the Strokes made no secret of doing a complete patch-job in terms of any guitar-driven garage band that has ever come out of NY (except of course, the Velvet Underground). Maybe there are bands ripping off the Strokes, but that’s a little like saying it’s possible certain directors are copying Richard Kelly....since his movies simply wouldn’t exist without David Lynch in this world, in a sense Kelly is just a convenient middleman, so these hack directors are basically picking up Lynch scraps. They just added a more current reference point. Third question we should ask ourselves: Was the actual music that good? Here’s where things aren’t as clear cut for me. One would be quite hard-pressed to make the argument the music is inherently poor. After all, the five-piece group does play remarkably well together, and there is a real sense of high levels of musicianship throughout the entirety of 'Is This It?' The hooks are hard to forget, and I will definitely concede there is a very logical flow from start to finish on the record. So, here is where I will deviate from my comprehensive obliteration of 'Is This It?' and conclude that the music was all done quite well, and all done within a specific vision and consistent goal in mind. It’s certainly not very sonically adventurous, and one gross thing about this industry is that effectual revitalization often gets confused with distilled innovation, and that’s always a shame of the highest degree. It’s going to get a bit preachy here, so if you aren’t into the whole ‘writers who you’ve never met impassionedly telling you how to think’ thing, might want to bugger off by this point. When we are considering the best musical offerings of the last ten years, historical context should be a much more prevalent measuring stick than any nostalgic validation we hold close to our hearts. You’d be an idiot if you don’t recognize the fact that 'Is This It?' was undoubtedly a major soundtrack for an absolute shit-ton of college parties in the first few years of this millennium, and that’s an accomplishment unto itself. Party music is generally okay in my books, since you know, I do like to party, and I do like the music to be at parties. So if that’s your niche, all the more power to you. Having said that, never before have I heard such hyperbolic praise thrust onto a group whose main contribution was ushering in such an inane and trifling musical movement in recent memory, one of which has proven to not having stood the test of time on even the most pedantic level imaginable. This isn’t lightning in a bottle music. It’s a t-shirt, at best. 'Is This It?' was actually a good album when it came out, and its timing was impeccable. Two things that make up much more than half the battle. Critics loved it, and if I was writing about music back then, I might have applauded it too (although the group’s carefully crafted hipster NY image would have undoubtedly stuck in my craw). It deserved to be praised at the time, since as far as joyous rock n’ roll records go, this one hit all the right notes. But the question is, why still? It’s aged decently well, but its conservativeness doesn’t speak volume in regards to the album’s worth in a historical context. I’m not exactly sure why it keeps sticking around in the wet dreams of rock critics everywhere, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact most of us are adolescent assholes who have trouble putting anything in objective perspective. I may suffer from this on occasion (I did after all, attempt to give the Stereophonics most recent release a perfect rating at another magazine before my editor vetoed it), but not with the Strokes. With these guys, it’s stoney eyed clarity. To me, we actually have a recent version of 'Is This It?' and it comes in the form of 'Rock n’ Roll Jesus' by Kid Rock. 'Rock n’ Roll Jesus' is a very good party album. It’s got big loud choruses, terrific changes of pace in terms of different tempos from song-to-song, yet still staying within the general framework of the album. In that sense, it’s basically essential listening material for any blue-collar, cabin bon-fire evening, and it’s definitely more rhythmic than nearly everything found on 'AC/DC Live'. If you want to get a bit analytical here (god, I just realized I’m using that word to describe a Kid Rock record....this is what they call, a slippery slope), than it must be understood that it’s not some eerie messianic trip Rock is on, nor is it a gospel album. But two things have to be discussed when thinking about the music on 'Rock n’ Roll Jesus': a) First of all, it’s just a throwback thing. Kid Rock loves when rock music used to be big, loud, and unapologetically over-the-top. To him, if there is a holy grail of rock n’ roll, this sort of attitude would be the blueprint. Can’t really blame him though, he did come out of Detroit. Plus there’s at least a 40% chance he might be right. b) Secondly, and more importantly, there are reoccurring references to Jesus throughout the album, and this is in a literal sense. But they’re so fleeting, and so clichéd, that it’s easy to look at these examples as Rock’s willingness to blindly believe in something so intrinsically dumb on every level instead of any actual theological message. It comes down to faith, and Kid Rock without a shadow of a doubt, is completely sold on the idea of rock n’ roll in its most rudimentary form, and that’s why it’s so easy to drunkenly embrace such a thing. It always seems like an obvious decision to pursue the most makeshift impulses into the yonder and back when one is three sheets to the wind, and that’s probably the main reason why 'Rock n’ Roll Jesus' debuted at number one on the charts. It’s essentially the same thing with 'Is This It?' although with more detached irony and a sense of entitlement, which sort of makes them the aural equivalent of the 2004 Oscar winning movie, 'Crash'. It’s smart enough to know that people like to have fun at social functions while listening to it, but dumb enough to be under the impression there’d be Chomsky literature lying around these events. Unfortunately for the Strokes, hipness never stays dormant, and the only things in this world that seem to be perpetually locked into an inspiring sense of coolness, are the things that weren’t regarded as all that cool in the first place. The vast majority of Strokes fans have shifted away from their discography, and while that’s not necessarily the band’s fault, it’s hard to picture things going any differently, considering the music existed almost exclusively on a totally aesthetic level. And we all know about the cyclical nature of fashion trends, which means there is still hope for the Strokes yet, I guess. When I was in college, I hated the Strokes so much I had a piece published in my university’s newspaper, detailing the extent of my discontent with their music. t doesn’t add a whole lot of dimensions to the arguments I’ve made in this article, but at the very least, it should show you that not everyone who went to college in the early years of this decade, felt over the moon about those rockin New Yorkers. Without further adieu, I present: Top Ten Things I’d Rather Do than Listen to the Strokes: 1. Share a cab with Quentin Tarantino immediately following the first time he got laid 2. Have rectal cancer surgery sans anaesthesia while the operating room is blasting a Ron Wood solo album at max volume 3. Wake up to a GG Allin guitar solo, every day for the rest of my life. 4. Get a speeding ticket every single time my car exceeded the speed-limit by one mile per-hour. 5. Attend a rave with Dane Cook. 6. Marry a girl who strongly resembles The Tall Man from the 'Phantasm' series. 7. Fail every class I ever take with a 49 %. 8. Lose the use of my penis through an unprecedented paintball accident. 9. Spend the rest of my life in Larry King’s trousers. 10. Chug a bottle of Southern Comfort spiked with three cyanide tablets. There you have it folks. Not everyone liked the Strokes when they came out and way less like them now. The good news is, while the band may have gone wayward, reworking old styles into present-day chic movements is still one that is heavily applauded, so who knows? Maybe they’ll get lucky and someone will dig up the hip sounds of the yesteryear and choose 'Is This It?'. They’re owed at least that much.

Picture Gallery:-
Strokes - The Strokes' 'Is This It?'

Visitor Comments:-
255 Posted By: Myshkin, London, UK on 06 Feb 2010
Well argued, Jeff. Got to agree with you too. The Strokes' are just musical reactionaries. Doing nothing new but recycling the past but covering it in new packaging. Dull.

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