By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
This is one of many entries in a series where I will be doing weekly blurbs on New York’s music scene. From old to new records, we’ll be going over some of the most classic records from The Big Apple and its surrounding region!
There’s something that’s equally wonderful and terrifying about thinking about the future. Sure, pockets of opportunity and endless possibilities for happy memories are on the horizon, but along with those possibilities are the potential for failure, sadness, and maybe even…nothing. Being a younger twenty-something trying to make it in life, I feel like I’m torn between focusing on trivial, temporary problems and passions, and anticipating whatever will come down the line. With that being said, music that captures the endless positivity and anxiety of being young will always be needed in the universe…especially when it’s created by a band as talented as The Strokes.
The Strokes, for the few reading that don’t know, are a New York rock band, featuring the legendary Julian Casablancas on vocals, Nikolai Fraiture on bass, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. on guitars and Fabrizio Moretti on drums. An accomplished band with a knack for incredible songwriting, interesting performances, and a rather turbulent history, The Strokes have had equal amounts of praise and criticism regarding the unique choices they make for each record. While I am a fan of a majority of their old and new work, it’s pretty much common consensus that their first album, Is This It, is a perfect representation of the power their music brings. It was a game-changer in 2001, a fantastic blend of pop-focused songwriting and garage rock performances that paved the way for numerous indie and alt rock bands down the line. It’s typical of the alt/indie genre, having many songs about love, frustration, worry, bliss…but it’s so precise, so perfect and replayable that it really is unmatched.
A perfect model of how Is This It succeeds can be found in its most popular track, “Last Nite.” On the surface, the track is instantaneous, with persistently sweet guitars, drums that hit like an excited heartbeat, and the soaring vocals on the chorus. Looking under the hood, however, shows a lot more complexity than any straightforward song has any right to: Casablancas’s vocal performance is a mix of 70s bravado and 90s cheekiness, the lyrics are all about feeling sad and opening up to a partner, the use of a shrill guitar solo brings to mind a band jamming in a garage on a Tuesday night. It’s fun, yes, but it’s perfectly calculated fun. It hits you hard on first listen, only getting better as you listen again and again. As the years have gone on, the band has attempted more layered ideas, but they sometimes come at the expense of that immediate thrill. This album perfectly balances that. “Soma” is a bumping rock jam, with choppy guitar melodies phasing between light-hearted and aggressive tones, making for a fun rock tune. Looking at the writing turns the song from great to fantastic. Beyond being a reference to Brave New World, the lyrics paint infatuation as an otherworldly drug, with the vocal lines being instantaneously catchy and sparse, almost psychedelic.
To focus more on the lyrics and their execution of this album, it’s important to emphasize how crucial they are to this album’s success. Is This It paved the way for indie as we know it today, with the garage rock energy of its instrumentals equally translating to its lyrics. “Barely Legal” sounds like a bridge between the pop punk of the 90s and the alt/indie of the 2000s, being a brazen love song about being someone’s first love. While the song appears to be very aggressive at first, lines like “I just want to be your slave” take a stab at the stereotypical dominant male archetype, something later bands would explore further. The album is more than straightforward love songs, however. “Hard to Explain” is a trippy nostalgia trip as Casablancas talks about being his dreams for fame, his disconnect from society, and general confusion. The number has some great use of synths and ripping guitar lines, a perfect song to become existentially happy with. The album in general has an aura of maturity that you don’t sense from too many debuts, with “Take It or Leave It” being a primo example. It’s a punky closer that almost contradicts a lot of the simple “boy meets girl” tunes that would come later in the indie scene, admitting that the dynamic of the dating scene is a load of BS and at the end of the day it’s best not to worry about it all. Combine all these tracks with wild, almost theatric vocals from Casablancas, and you see why so many bands wanted to reach this level of charisma later down the line.
That concept of worry is something that this album touches upon subtly throughout its brisk 35 minute run. Broken promises and bygone happiness turns “Someday” from a fun garage jam into a sobering moment. “Is This It,” the opener, is a somber and beautiful track about seeking comfort in a very turbulent world that can tend to be very cold and deceiving…but in a way this album perfectly balances this worry with a lot of smaller, more relatable problems and a fun soundscape. Sure certain lines can be poignant and even jaded, but they are also accompanied by lines and instrumentals that are equally sweet and hopeful. “The Modern Age” is a song about getting by day to day, just to be with someone you love, with the chorus and roaring guitars slamming into your ears in a heavenly fashion. “Is This It” is a sad track, yes, but it also features lines about trying to resolve friendly conflicts and a truly magical chord progression. “When It Started” is a meditative song about Julian’s family, but the cute guitars and clean drums make you want to get up and dance. The production in this album in general is perfect; it has enough bite to satisfy anyone looking for an edge to their music, but has the pop polish that any casual fan can get behind. The music has the “Hey Ya” effect, the darkness of sentiment being masked by the sheer brightness and fun that the beat brings.
And that’s how I’d describe Is This It. Beyond being a game changer in the rock scene, the album is a genuinely perfect balance of emotion, fun, grit and polish. It’s an album that you can listen to practically anywhere: I’ve seen people bop to “The Modern Age” at kickbacks, “Is This It” is a perfect song to think about the future, “Last Nite” is a great song to send to a crush. But each of these songs have details that keep rewarding you the more you return to their seemingly simple appeal. The songwriting and lyricism is extremely tight, the performances and production have a nuance that is rarely seen from other bands, the feelings of anxiety and heartbreak are blended with tales of youth and love. It’s one of the best albums ever, regardless of genre…so you should give it a shot!
But that’s just my take on it. What do you think about Is This It? Is it a classic to you, or do you find it overrated? Any favorite songs from The Strokes from this album or another? Let me know in the comments!
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