The video for “Last Nite” remains a compelling document. The lights come up slowly, rendering the five band members as skinny silhouettes. The lead guitarist has a cigarette tucked under the strings, imitating lead guitarists throughout history. The singer’s eyes are vacant, cavernous, hungry. There are beer bottles on the amps.This is a rock band.
The Strokes came up at the tail end of the music video’s relevance. They also originated at the beginning of the Internet hype cycle, when image was becoming (perhaps unimaginably) even more important in rock music. In their class were the White Stripes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—all undeniably cool, indelibly well-branded bands.
While their contemporaries have aged fairly gracefully, The Strokes have not.
In a well-researched piece on Pitchfork, Jonathan Garrett describes how the band finally broke into popularity after years of playing to empty bars in New York City. NME put them on two covers within three months, and was single-handedly responsible for their sold-out English tour.
NME lauded the band so strongly because they really were different than the then-nü-metal-dominated radio fare coming out of America. Alternately, the late '90s and early 2000s were also a time for very strong cutting-edge R&B and pop. The Strokes represented something significantly larger than five skinny guys from New York. They weren’t a band; they were saviors.
Way before Mad Men would make skinny ties fashionable again, The Strokes wore them. The long line of early '00s new wave imitators got the last of the big record label money because The Strokes loosened the purse strings.
The band’s origin was dependent on a cycle of hype, so the actual musical output was nearly irrelevant. It’s almost a shame, then, that Is This It turned out to be one of the most energetic, pitch-perfect encapsulations of great rock music. The 11 songs on the record paint alternately sunny, inebriated days wandering the city and the sordid nights that follow. The playing and production of the record aim for—and largely hit—a timeless sound in between polished modern radio rock and lo-fi '70s grit.
As The Strokes released more albums they iterated their sound slightly, but time itself moved on. What made a lot of sense in 2001 stopped working by the mid 2000s.
The Strokes’ tragic disconnect is nowhere more apparent than in their latest Saturday Night Liveouting. Among skits about a deranged Charlie Sheen and Miley Cyrus as Justin Bieber, The Strokes seem totally out of place. Their music is a moody aspect of their early work, but it’s divorced from the conditions that made them vital.
Introduced by Cyrus (wearing a vintage Strokes t-shirt), who would have been nine when their first album came out, they launched into “Under Cover of Darkness,” their new single. The band looked like they were having fun, a genuinely good sign for the future. But for the moment, the band’s image is still locked into the retro-obsessed early 2000s. Casablancas is sporting the same haircut, and maybe even the same leather jacket. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture wore a John Lennon-inspired sleeveless New York City t-shirt.
The Strokes new material is not bad, but it’s literally nothing new. The band already saved rock and roll a decade ago. The fact that their debut album turned out great was almost an afterthought. Right now, they’re in a similar situation. Radio is still dominated by cutting-edge pop. Rock doesn’t even have the ignominy of being represented on the charts by the likes of Limp Bizkit; it hardly ever charts highly.
Even as Arcade Fire won a Grammy for Album of the Year, there was a teacup storm around the deservedness of the winners. It could be this dearth of truly popular mainstream rock bands that’s powering interest in an arguably washed-up outfit like The Strokes. Bored with the almost perfunctory semi-annual important rock album (almost invariably submitted by some combination of Radiohead, Coldplay and U2), listeners could be at a loss for exciting new rock.
The Strokes offer that potential. It’s a testament to their original frisson that there’s an audible section of people looking forward to their new album. Whether it fails (it likely will, in a larger sense) is almost inessential to their story. Is This It—despite going platinum—was a commercial disappointment in the context of their seeming popularity. That didn’t stop the band from becoming dominant taste makers, kicking off a solid half-decade garage rock revival.
Perhaps fans are hoping the new Strokes album—regardless of its overall popularity—can have a similarly catalyzing effect on the state of rock music.
Fuse March 8, 2011