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Monday, December 01, 2003
I think I'm fully warm to the new Strokes album now. I think at first it's hard to think anything other than, "Whoa, this sure sounds like a Strokes album," but by now I've gotten used to it enough where I can appreciate them as really good songs, regardless of past history.

Which brings me to my favorite song on the disc: "Between Love and Hate."

One thing that critics get wrong about the Strokes, I think this album makes clear, is that they're ripping off the '77 punkers. Not true if you actually listen beyond the production and look beyond the leather jackets. For instance, it's never been asked--or if so, never adequately answered: exactly which punk band do the Strokes sound like? If they were ripping off Television, they'd sound like Sonic Youth. If they were ripping off Talking Heads, they'd sound like the Dismemberment Plan. If they were ripping off the Clash, they'd sound like Rancid. If they were ripping off Wire, they'd sound like Elastica. If they were ripping off the Dolls, they'd sound like a glam-rockabilly band. If they were ripping off Blondie, they'd sound disco. If they were ripping off the Buzzcocks, they'd sound like Green Day. If they were ripping off the Sex Pistols, they'd sound much louder. And so forth. I guess they do share certain things with the Ramones, but at the same time, when you think of Ramones descendents, you definitely don't think of a sound like the Strokes'.

And yet the comparison is impossible to avoid--and not necessarily untrue. They clearly yearn for the fashion and scene of the time, of course, and their production has a lot in common with the pre-80's guitar-band sound (viz. Sasha's point about them wanting their songs to all sound just as good in mono). But you sort of have to look past that and realize, as I say above, that they don't actually sound much at all like any of the actual punk bands in terms of songwriting, drums, guitars (there's the punk chug-chug-chug, but in the upper register instead of the lower), or even vocals, where Julian's swings from Lou Reed-stoned to Stiv-Bators-pissed-off don't really happen anywhere else, and that doesn't mean that he ripped these off, since who the hell thinks of combining the two?

At any rate, I think the key point--and listening to "Between" in isolation will, I think, really drive this home--is that the Strokes sound like '77 punkers not because they've ripped them off, but because they're taking inspiration from the exact same sources the punkers were, but resulting in something different. That point in turn ends up explaining a number of things. Let's get a-started.

So what I'm hearing here is a lot of 50's and 60's pop. Guitar-band pop, rockabilly pop, girl-group pop. It's all there. This song in particular has a lot in common with Chuck Berry, but over a more girl-group backing, and so it ends up being a bit "My Boyfriend's Back" as covered by the Modern Lovers or something. Julian may be delivering lines like "Thinkin' 'bout that high school dance/worryin' bout the finals" with a bit of a wink and a nudge, but it doesn't really matter, because the backing is straight in multiple sense of the word, and you can dance to the damn thing. And then when he hits the chorus of "I never needed anybody" it calls up the Beatles more than anybody else in my mind. And but so then the solo hits and you'd be way hard-pressed to call it anything besides countrified, wouldn't you?

And so it's taking all that stuff--Berry's/Spector's straight-faced teenagism, Lennon's angst and lyricism, Harrison's solos, Wilson's rhythmic perfectionism--and making something definitely informed by the last 25 years of pop music, but with its roots clearly in the first 25 years.

One of the reasons I think this is a Good Thing is that, as I say above, you can dance to the damn thing. It definitely swings and grooves and all that jazz, despite being sort of lethargic. But I think it only feels lethargic because of Julian's vocal production and because of our modern ears: listen, say, to an old MC5 or Rondelles album, and that feels pretty lethargic in comparison to Weezer or Britney. But it's not: it's just, you know, slower, and more mellowly produced. It's still highly danceable. Matter of fact, it's arguably bringing rock back to the kind of BPM that's allowed it to be eclipsed by hip-hop as default dance music. As the Timelords say, people don't like to dance to anything too fast, because it makes them look stupid. And so the Strokes, by being informed mainly by this older, danceable stuff, instead of its mid-period, occasionally dancable stuff, have produced not the next-level-angularity/artiness/harshness/whatever of the post-punkers, but the deniability that many in the '77 crowd possessed. And I think that's a Good Thing.

So do give the new album a whirl if you haven't yet, and try listening to it as a descendent of the 60's rather than the 70's and see what you think. It's no accident that this has managed to achieve some level of popular success.