Forget the hype, 'Room on Fire' is just plain great

by Caroline McKenzie | 11/6/03 6:00am

Forget that Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich almost produced it, because he didn't. Stop the comments about contrived scruffiness, skinny ties and posh New York upbringings, because those things never changed the music. And don't even think about making a "this is it" pun -- leave that to Ryan Adams and journalists of the New York Post school. Take this for what it is.

This is "Room on Fire." This is The Strokes two years after their debut album, "Is This It." And, most importantly, this is fantastic music.

Some are sure to say that "Room on the Fire" is "Is This It" rehashed and rerecorded. It's true that "Room" is strikingly similar to its predecessor in many regards. Clocking in at just 33 minutes, it has the same gritty, lo-fi short-and-sweetness that makes The Strokes sound like they pulled the album out of their pocket and that made "Is This It" so unique.

But obviously, the music belies the real effort and talent The Strokes posses, just as the similarities between "Room" and "Is This It" belie the undeniable strength of the new material.

Yes, it's true; all the telltale signs of The Strokes are present on "Room on Fire." Julian Casablancas' distinctively crackly voice only sounds a little older, but otherwise hasn't changed much. Fab Moretti's talented drumming is as strong on the new album as on the last. Nikolai Fraiture's thumping bass is again omnipresent, especially in the beginning of "Between Love and Hate."

A few of the tracks also sound like they could have been plucked straight off of "Is This It." "Meet Me In The Bathroom" is dj vu all over again, sounding like "Hard to Explain" taken at the tempo of "Trying Your Luck." "You Talk Way Too Much" at times sounds reminiscent of a slowed down "Take It Or Leave It." Both of these songs were part of the band's set a full year ago, before the album even went into production, and fit seamlessly into sets with the older songs. Yet, at the same time, this doesn't seem to cheapen the album, but only make it more familiar.

In effect, "Room on Fire" presents The Strokes as, if anything, more introverted than before. There's nothing as eager as "Someday" or that packs a punch like "New York City Cops." Instead the songs seem to linger more and be more thoughtful.

This is especially noticeable on the absolutely beautiful "Between Love and Hate." When Casablancas springs into a litany of "I never needed anybody"s it's fantastically reminiscent of the first time people heard The Clash mellow out and infuse their punk sounds with reggae. The guitar and snare drumming mesh so well, and Fraiture smoothly bumps in and out on bass. It's only made more perfect when Casblancas actually croons "Oh loooonely, so lonely!" It's near perfect.

Another interesting attribute of the album is the faux-synth pop sound created by Nick Valensi's guitar that pervades several of the songs. This combined with the hand-clapping on the first single, "12:51," makes it sound as if they're retrogressing back to the '80s, but the song stands strong and Moretti's snare exit at the end caps it off smoothly.

"The End Has No End" has a similar synth vibe to it. The synth guitar and the spare drumming, coupled with Casblancas exclaiming "Oh no!" every other line of the chorus, can be described no better than purely infectious. But its signature drum drop off at the end clearly tags it a Strokes song, for all those who might have otherwise forgotten.

The real gem on the album though, is most definitely "Under Control." It's an easy, unpretentious anti-love song and Casablancas's sweet singing is almost like that of a filtered Van Morrison. It's laid-back and borders on being something that allows for slow dancing. It's wonderfully beautiful and different, yet the lyrics are typical of Casablancas -- "I don't want to do it your way." In this way, it seems to typify the album in general; it's gorgeous and unique, but at the same time it's everything wonderful that is The Strokes.

"Room On Fire" isn't a dastardly departure from form, but nor is it an exact carbon copy. It's not adventurous, but it's still a fantastic crop of excellent songs painfully crafted to sound like they were pulled off with ease. Maybe after two years of waiting, some people are hoping for more than this half-hour short stack of familiarity, but each song is beautiful and the album is a successful effort by The Strokes to remain a talented musical force, but not to overreach too soon.

Thus "Room On Fire" is an unrushed, introverted yet pleasingly familiar slice from the little band that spawned a new revolution in rock over the past two years. Maybe the next album will be drastically different, but for the time being, "Room" is good enough to satiate even the most dubious cynics. And even if the next album is only as good as "Room," that wouldn't be a bad thing. It seems fitting that Casablancas thus closes the album with the lines, "Hold on. Yes, I'll be right back."

Don't worry, Jules. We'll wait for you.

CD courtesy of The Dartmouth Bookstore