Album: Is This It
Artist: The Strokes
Released: July 30th, 2001
Highlights: The Modern Age, Barely Legal, Someday, Hard to Explain
Sometimes history is written in such an appropriate and convenient way that no screenwriter could have done it any better; in fact, occasionally the real-life unfolding of evnts is so perfect that any fictional script containing the same story beats would have have run the risk of being shot down for alleged lack of plausibility. Take the case The Strokes’ debut record, the beloved “Is This It”. The album, which was responsible for introducing the music of the New York quintet to the planet, came out at the dawn of the 21st century, when that roller-coaster ride was not even one-year-long. As such, it propelled the band to stardom right when the world, caught in a new-millennium hype, was desperately looking to label whatever fresh elements it could find as an example of the new – and hopefully bright – age humanity had just stepped into; and given The Strokes were, thanks to the strength of “Is This It”, the talk of pretty much any rock-leaning circle, the group was quickly heralded as the genre’s claim to ruling, or at least having some considerable space, in the era that was just starting: rock would make it to a new century rather than being relegated to the one in which it was born.
That might all sound a bit melodramatic to anyone who was either not there or simply not paying attention, and The Strokes themselves would end up suffering to a degree because of the status they reached right out of the gate, but the band did signal a kind of change with its arrival on the mainstream; one that rock was in desperate need of back then. With the giants of grunge either being a distant memory or a having a diminished status, the icons of Britpop either going for daring innovations or crawling to stagnation, and with a vast assortment of alternative acts merging rock with other genres to come up with combinations of greatly varying levels of quality, there seemed to be nobody out there with an urge to play rock music in its purest essence. To put it in practical terms, no one of elevated stature seemed to be willing to lock a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and a vocalist inside a room to explore the possibilities found within that limited combo.
It was a crisis that, to some, showed the format had grown stale and that the only way for rock to move forward and survive was by merging with other rhythms. By putting out “Is This It”, The Strokes – whether they planned it or not – countered that notion and ultimately produced the irrefutable proof of its fallacy, as they showed there was still untapped magic in the sonic realm that can be reached by a group of friends that get together to have fun, turn on some amplifiers, and bang out some straightforward rock music; making it quite unsurprising that, following the record’s release, bands and labels alike would breathe enough oxygen into the format’s corpse to resurrect it for good under the moniker of garage rock revival.
To a point, that is a label that fits what The Strokes do in “Is This It” just fine: the band plays with energy, there are no obvious production embellishments, the record feels like it was constructed via live takes, and there is nothing but guitars, bass, drums, and vocals being used. On the other hand, the garage genre feels misused on The Strokes, even if slightly. The adjective, after all, brings to mind wildly ferocious acts such as The Monks, MC5, The Stooges, and the early days of The Kinks. In common, those bands have two vital characteristics: they were so loose and spontaneous that if most of their tracks had ad-libs nobody would be surprised; and the tunes they played were so simple a listener could be fooled into thinking they materialized in the magic of the moment. For The Strokes, however, those truths do not hold: singer Julian Casablancas does throw some shouts into the mix but they are more exception than norm; more importantly, there is no way one could be convinced the meticulous songcraft boasted by “Is This It” came to be on the spot.
Obviously, it is not that The Strokes play some undecipherable progressive music; with eleven tracks and thirty-six minutes of length, “Is This It” is as beautifully lean as it gets. It is just that the interplay seen between the guys is so perfectly weaved it can only have come out of consideration, calculation, and – of course – a lot of rehearsing. Therefore, even though The Strokes certainly belong to the garage genre (so much that they ignited the whole process of bringing it back to life), they are a different type of garage group: one that will knock the audience’s socks off not by sheer fire, but by flooring them with hypnotizing interlocked parts played with the utmost vigor while the singer seems to be on a friendly competition with the instrumentalists to see who will squeeze the largest amount of hooks into the three minutes they have to go through the song. In a way, this precision is perfectly tied with the concept Julian Casablancas had for the album, which – according to him – should sound like a band from the past that came to the future to make a record: “Is This It” captures that concept, displaying a group that is old-timey in its immaculate tight rhythm, but still young enough to be energetic and write about complicated relationships or nighttime adventures.
Although bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti are invaluable to the interplay due to the clockwork base they set, which they rarely leave to join in on the fun, the men responsible for the instrumental duel that defines “Is This It” are guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. Whether they are playing alternating riffs that bounce off of each other or simultaneously unleashing distinctive guitar lines, the work they do here is comparable to that of other New York legends, allowing the band’s influences to come to the surface. When they are chugging along to distinctive rhythmical runs, they summon thoughts of The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison. When they are dueling, though, and one (usually Valensi) takes a line that is of a more prominently lead nature, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television come to mind. However, as the album progresses and the pair relentlessly show teamwork as well as creativity, vocalist Julian Casablancas makes it clear the heart of the band is simply far poppier.
That is because neither The Velvet Underground nor Television ever aimed for the types of hooks seen here. Sure, Reed could pen amazing melodies, but he was too much of a poet to be chained by them; as for Verlaine and Lloyd, they were from a school of technical proficiency and, especially, improvisational detours that are alien to what The Strokes do. “Is This Is” gets those guitar duels built from millimetric handcraft and squeezes them into the tight space of a standard pop rock song, with no room for excess, pretension, or self-indulgence. And when the melodies and guitar lines slowly reveal themselves to be uniformly stellar, it is easy to understand why the work is loved by both rock fans as well as people who want their music to be as catchy as possible.
“Is This It” is an album that can be debated through many lenses. Thanks to its garage construction, it can be seen as ground zero, at least on the mainstream, for a movement that would go on to define rock music during the early 2000s. Due to how it rehabilitates the instrumental setup of a standard rock album, without additional sounds or external genres ever touching the songs, it can be regarded as a glorious announcement that showed the world – in the best possible way – that rock still had plenty to say as humanity moved into the 21st century. Because of the status into which it launched its makers, it can be looked at as a promise that was never truly fulfilled. Finally, and more importantly than any of those, it can be viewed as one of the best records (be them debuts or not) of all time, because rarely has so much expert songcraft and fantastic instrumentation been so nicely condensed into thirty-six minutes of perfect rock writing and performance.