Is This It, by The Strokes
2001, RCA Rough Trade. Producer: Gordon Raphael
In My Collection: CD 2001.
(5 Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Is This It, the 2001 debut album from The Strokes, is a terrific record of Velvet Underground-inspired garage rock. It’s from an era of a return to prominence for the guitar, and Albert Hammond, Jr., and Nick Valensi layer the quick, catchy songs with nifty little licks and leads over driving chords. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture carries some songs with his bouncy lines, and drummer Fab Moretti keep things basic but interesting. Singer/Songwriter Julian Casablancas uses all means to distort both his voice and his meanings, and projects stardom from the first note. Even though the record can feel a bit same-y, there are enough winning tunes to warrant repeat plays.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
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Hey, I’m back! After a little hiatus I’m happy to report that my health is fine. In fact, the way the health scare turned out, the name of this week’s album is entirely apropos: “Is this it?” Anyway – on with the favorite albums.
Boys and Girls in America, by The Hold Steady, landed on my 100 Favorite Albums list at number 100. It was the first record I wrote about so I didn’t have to worry that I was rehashing the same old crap I’d already written about. I had every conceivable angle on Earth available to me with no risk of repetition. Somewhere around record #97, Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass, I decided not to concern myself with this problem. I’ve been repeating myself ever since, and I feel great about it!
So I’m not at all worried that in writing about my interaction with The Strokes’ excellent debut record, Is This It, I’ll essentially repeat what I wrote for Boys and Girls in America1: in the early 2000s, I found myself way out of touch with contemporary rock. I’d been put off in the mid 90s when Alternative Rock started morphing into metal-rap. But as the ’00s began I made an effort to get back to it.
Music consumption just after the new millennium was so different from today that it’s hard to remember how I encountered new music without a Spotify “Discover Weekly” playlist or Sound Opinions podcast to guide my way. By that point I had long ago abandoned my Columbia House membership.
I know I had radios in the house and in the car, which were tuned to “radio stations,” and I listened to them – so I must’ve heard new songs there. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a pandemic (I think that started in 2005, right?), so I actually interacted with humans at work face-to-face regularly, even daily! Those folks shared some information. And then there were these flimsy, book-like collections of stapled-together glossy paper called “magazines” that were mailed to peoples’ houses. Some of these “magazines” were specifically about music, like SPIN and Rolling Stone and Blender. I know I read some of those.
Also around this time, after years of having record companies rip off customers, music consumers began stealing from record companies2 as mp3 file-sharing sites like Napster and KaZaa and Limewire brought music to your desktop through your dial-up modem. This meant that if a co-worker or radio station or magazine suggested (or played, in the case of radio) a song or artist, I could fire up my gleaming Gateway 2000 and in an hour or so have the song right there in my computer.
All these aspects of early ’00s life came together for me in my quest for new music. One of the most exciting new movements I heard and read about was the “garage rock revival.” Guitar-based bands were becoming popular making catchy, poppy, aggressive songs using the tried-and-true guitar/bass/drums3 formula of song craft. Many of them signaled this return to basics by using a style of band-naming that had gone out of style by the mid-70s: the definitive article.
The Hives. The Shazam. The White Stripes. The Vines. The Libertines. The Von Bondies. The Greenhornes. The Mooney Suzuki. Whenever I heard a new name, I commenced the music-stealing operation, and I got a taste of what these bands were all about. Each of them had a sound and style that was right up my mid-30s alley, and one of my favorites of the definitive-article-named-bands was the one that probably got the most press: The Strokes.
I’ve done my best over the years to set aside the working-class-kid disdain I’ve held for The Strokes’ band members. I think we all now recognize the fiction that America was ever a meritocracy with equal access to the means of success, but still it can be an annoying fact. And sure, the band members are all from extremely wealthy families, and met at expensive prep schools. Rich kids who never did a damn thing to earn their money are just a fact of life. But these guys, as adults, are indeed earning their dough with the polished sounds of sophisticated, two-guitar garage rock.
Is This It starts off with the title track, which, at first, seems like an unusual choice for an opener.
After a little noise, the drums set the pace for a discordant guitar line and singer Julian Casablancas’s distorted, indifferent vocals. The song sort of chugs along, and – deviously – begs the question, “Is this it?” Then the second verse hits (0:52), and bassist Nikolai Fraiture really makes the song pop with a ping-pong bass line that digs into your ear and doesn’t let go. The song also sets the template for the band’s two guitar mode, with both playing different riffs that fit together perfectly. Lyrically, the song might discuss a drunken argument at a bar? It’s hard to say.
The Strokes are certainly not innovators, but they expertly build on sounds of the past, particularly The Velvet Underground. A case in point is “The Modern Age.”
Drummer Fab Moretti thumps the opening, and syncopated guitars join in while Casablancas again sings like he’s describing a friend’s closet. This time, however, he seems to be describing a daydream. But about 1:13, he kicks it into another gear and the song seems to lift off. When guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr., gets to solo at 1:50, the song hits yet another gear. He’s a deft player, unafraid to pack a lot of notes into his brief bursts4.
Bands like The Strokes brought guitar back to rock. Obviously, all the 90s rock bands – the Green Days, the Nirvanas, the Soundgardens – played guitar, but they were mostly content to string together chords played loud, with distortion. Some acts featured a guitar solo now and then, but songs with a signature riff, or an intricate through-line, or cool solo were largely missing. The Strokes, on the other hand, feature Hammond and Nick Valensi, and they often play dueling guitar lines behind Casablancas’s vocals, along with quick, catchy solos.
A great example of the two guitar attack on Is This It is the popular song “Someday.”
It’s a bouncy song that opens with another syncopated riff. Then about 0:11 a second strumming guitar enters. The rest of the song, the lead and rhythm guitars play against each other nicely. It’s nothing spectacular, but it just works, especially against Fraicture’s bass line in the chorus. The lyrics in this one seem to be a plea to NOT stay together. Casablancas’s voice is another one of those love-it-or-hate-it types that I’ve discussed before. But he can really make it work, as on “Soma,” another song in which both guitars play off each other spectacularly (0:20 and throughout). It’s a song about Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it really kicks in about 2:03, when Moretti ups the beat and Casablancas loses his cool and howls.
Something else that’s part of The Strokes’ sound on Is This It is the ability to drop in a great melody just as the song is starting to feel a bit repetitive. Take, for example, “Barely Legal.”
It chugs along nicely, with Moretti setting a good pace, as Casablancas seems to lament his life of luxury (although he does claim he took no shortcuts5). After five verses (1:31) the band plays a brief interlude, then the catchiest of choruses comes in. Just as with previous songs, at that moment it goes from pretty good to great. This chorus alone may make it my favorite. Similarly, “Alone, Together” surfs along nicely on cool guitars and Fraiture’s rangey bass, while Casablancas sings about somebody’s relationship. Then it picks up at Hammond’s great solo at 2:33 and rocks to a terrific ending.
Yet another number in this vein is the nearly techno “Hard to Explain.” It drives forward on a locomotive beat, full of guitars, as Casablancas sings a soothing melody with lyrics that are, well, hard to explain. Then at 1:45 the chorus focuses everything on an excellent, quick tune that is doubled by the guitar. It plays out again to a terrifically abrupt ending.
Is This It is chock full of great songs, and perhaps the most well-known is the stomper “Last Nite.”
It opens with a riff openly stolen from Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Petty didn’t mind, as he told Rolling Stone. (He even invited them to open on his 2006 tour.) Valensi and Hammond, Jr., work great together, and the drumming is sloppily excellent. The lyrics go back and forth about what really happened last nite – did he walk out that door? Didn’t he? But the list of people (and aliens) who will never understand is a really cool lyrical hook.
My only problem with Is This It is that, even as good as its songs are, it starts to feel pretty same-y by the end of the record. “When It Started” again has a great bass and a cool guitar solo. “Trying Your Luck” has some nice rhythm guitar. “Take It or Leave It” (which is a great song title for the closing number on an album called Is This It) has a cool descending chorus. They’re each competent enough songs, but placed alongside the others on the record, they feel a bit like facsimiles of the real things. And Casablancas’s unique voice and style doesn’t help distinguish them.
But still, I love Is This It. It’s got great energy and packs a lot into its brief numbers. The album just barely missed my Top 100 list. It always takes me back to a time when new music was just a simple 30-minute download away.