How do you tell whether you like a band that the entire British press, Rolling Stone and your mother say is going to save rock 'n' roll and win the war on terrorism? If you've heard the hype, you may already know that the Strokes are New Yawkers, barely drinking age, with sloppy guitars, cool clothes and mystique-making pseudonyms like Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture and Albert Hammond Jr.
Their debut, Is This It, is either the full resurrection of the Velvet Underground's best work, or the new Nevermind. The only disparaging detail, their "privileged" backgrounds, has also been noted -- perhaps to distinguish them from previous NYC biggies, like Blondie, VU and the New York Dolls, all of whom came up in ghetto foster homes? Not quite. A safer bet is that someone did some research behind those names, and "privileged" is being used unscrupulously as a euphemism for "Jewish." It's something journalists did with the Beastie Boys. Talk about chutzpah, that Yiddish-cum-New Yorkese term, connoting "nerve," both positive and negative -- it's also the operative word when it comes to all things Strokes, regardless of the boys' mysterious ethnic persuasions.
The roots are obvious -- they're an Atlantic Rim band through and through. Musically, it ranges from the aforementioned New York bands to Bostonians like the Modern Lovers and the Pixies, and across to Britain for a range of New Wave guitar droners. But plenty of other bands could shift between Lou Reed dirge and twanging Johnny Thunders punk like the Strokes do here. The difference is, the Strokes do it with spunk, spirit, whatever you call it -- they have the chutzpah to cop a style, but also not to sound at all guilty about it, which takes real chutzpah. It's hard to tell, through the muffled production, whether singer Casablancas' voice is breaking up in passion or distortion, but it's a brittle croon -- clearly taught by Lou Reed -- whose charisma stamps itself on your eardrums.
His lyrics might not make you weep, but they are picturesque, sexual and romantic, like his city -- "Alone we stand/Together we fall apart," he sings on "Someday," which has a swinging, swaying '60s R&B beat. From such snappy pub-rockers to the angular synth-punk of tunes like "Hard to Explain," it all has an indelible groove. The guitars register everything from the Dolls to Wire, while sounding like one scrappy style, and the bold melodies arch and interlock unexpectedly. Few bands could forge "The Modern Age," with its gently lilting chorus and jerky, rhythmic verse, so effortlessly into a single catchy tune.
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Not convinced? True, the Strokes aren't the only NYC band with as much chutzpah as Allen Dershowitz (see fellow Manhattanites the Mooney Suzuki), they're just on a bigger label. Also, your reaction to this music depends on whether you've got the right buttons to push. Have you fallen in love with the trashy-sophisticated cool of New York rock 'n' roll? Is the Big Apple in your heart? If not, Is This It might not grab your imagination -- just rock you a little, inspire you a little. But hype aside, maybe a rock 'n' roll band can't, and doesn't need to, do much more.