From now on, ‘My CD Collection’ will go live at The Curator on Friday afternoons. Keep coming back each week!
The Strokes were part of that wave of garage rock at the turn of the century that was, like techno in the ‘90s, hyped as the kick in the pants the moribund music industry needed. The band seemed aware of the hype that launched them. Look at their debut album title: Is This It. No question mark, as if the answer were built-in to those three words: This Is It. “Take It or Leave It” they sang, the band itself perhaps the “it” the indeterminate pronoun refers to, the “it” band not caring about whether anyone gets “it.” The Strokes were more art-school cool than the self-consciously blue-collar White Stripes, the ironic Hives, or the commercially polished Jet, yet I enjoyed all the music I heard on the radio by these bands, their songs a nice antidote to the post-grunge and Nu Metal saturating the white-people alt-rock airwaves. Nevertheless, Is This It is the only artifact I bought from the garage rock revival. Why?
In the era of YouTube and Spotify, finding new music is easy on the body and the pocketbook, but back in the day, paying for music carried risk and cost. I’d often lament the CD I just paid fifteen bucks for at the Virgin Megastore, even if I had just spent forty minutes (where did I find the time?) standing at the new music kiosk with headphones on, listening to the whole thing from start to finish. Once I owned the music, it somehow transformed into something less thrilling, weirdly familiar. That commonly recurring feeling put a check on my buying habits. When I found something I liked, and which lasted, I was grateful, but I was batting around .275 when it came to buying CDs.
For Is This It, my poor consumer satisfaction average was compounded by what I’m embarrassed to cop to as envy. The Strokes were media darlings, new and hip compared to tank-topped, backwards-cap-wearing hot heads like Fred Durst. They dressed well, they had impossibly chic names (Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, Fabrizio Moretti, and for a whiff of blues cred, Albert Hammond, Jr.), and were beautiful to look at—still are, in fact. The singing of Julian Casablancas (is this name for real?) didn’t seem addressed to any particular audience, as if he didn’t care what his listeners thought.
Here’s where the envy comes in. It was hard, especially so fifteen years ago, to listen to any new music without it being refracted through my own conscious music-making self. You might say that, since I play basketball every Thursday evening, I might as well be envious of LeBron James. I’m not. Basketball, one of my favorite things to play and to watch, was a late-ish pastime. I became obsessed in my twenties, after a youth filled with athletic failure.
But music was different. It’s never been flat for me, a series of notes emanating from the radio in the corner. From a young age, music’s been a world, one I could enter and participate in. I started playing the guitar at 19 not to learn other peoples’ songs but to make my own. In 2001, I was seven years into making recordings I hoped others would love as much as I had loved them myself. Few did. Via the hype machine propping up the “it” band of late 2001, I saw in The Strokes all the cool I’d never be plus attention my music would never have. As for the ubiquitous single, “Last Nite,” its swagger and posture, its self-consciously retro production, the singer’s self-regarding delivery, all rubbed me—who convinced myself that self-deprecating modesty was a higher road an artiste should take—wrong.
Why did I buy the CD, then, if I wasn’t convinced by what I’d heard? Critics. I care, for good or for ill, about what critics think. They loved Is This It. Arbiters of cool—like the young white men at Pitchfork—raved about it. Apparently, I wanted approval of people I’d never meet, and one critic in particular convinced me to drive to the store and buy the thing. I don’t remember her name, but I remember she wrote about the guitar solo on “Last Nite,” which she said typified what was great about the band’s music: concision and craft. Nerdy as it might sound, I love concision in any kind of art, finding constraint, both as theme and form, a means by which the mettle of a craftsperson is tested. Limitation breeds invention and all that.
Nevertheless, as a “competitor” of the band’s, I resented and felt intimidated by their look and youth and the praise they bathed in, even by the minimalist production, which I took as a posture, and of course it was a posture! But what about my posture? Can I get a hell yeah for self-deprecating modesty?
This may be why it took about ten years for me to hear the album’s music for what it is: a sonic package meant to hit all my particular aural pleasure centers. I had to grow up in order to receive it. One afternoon, Is This It came on the CD changer while I worked on something in the kitchen. Every song was a concise and enjoyable system of melody and sound. At the guitar solo near the end of “Alone, Together,” I was knocked out. This album, I thought, is a terrific product. And product it is, as Robert Christgau’s brief review perceives and articulates. Casablancas sings with passionate detachment, and the music is a synthesis of the poppier elements of the underground music percolating at CBGBs in the 70s and 80s: The Stooges and The Modern Lovers and The Feelies and The Ramones and Television and Suicide, and of course The Velvets, with some Tom Petty thrown in as a nod to and finger flung at classic rock. The songs are about alienation, I guess, but I don’t listen to Is This It for insight about the human condition. I listen to it because it sounds good, in song after song after song.
It’s even at times decidedly fun, which is to say, not cool. Despite the images of bars and smoking and grimy street life, an anachronism in Giuliani’s New York, the video for “Someday” can’t disguise the fact that this number is a jaunty sing-along. Or listen to the bass on the title track. It plays a melody clearly pushed up in the mix by the producer, who knew it was a great counterpoint to the singer’s ennui-inflected delivery. It’s the loudest bass part on the album, and it undercuts, or overwhelms, the boredom the lyrics avow.
Finally, look at the CD booklet’s artwork, methodically curated to capitalize on the mystery and allure of the band and its compadres, including “guru,” and you’ll find on the last page a thank-you list. The nice boys in The Strokes would like to remind you that they have parents and are grateful for their support.
When I grow to love an album by an artist, I tend to buy everything that artist puts out, but Is This It is the only Strokes I’ve bought, and I doubt I’ll pick up any more. It took a decade, but when I had forgotten it made me feel jealous, I was able to be surprised by it, to favor its discipline and melodic complexity, to bop along to its kinetic, poppy hooks. It was a studied move, but I admire the fact that those who made Is This It decided that rocking out doesn’t need a richer production or higher volume but a restriction of space where the rocking out takes place. I don’t know if the band ever captured such a sustained success again, and I don’t want to find out. I love this gemlike collection of songs. I don’t want to be disappointed.
Next Week: The B-52s, Cosmic Thing