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The Strokes – Room on Fire

The StrokesRoom on Fire (RCA)

Seriously, what was everyone expecting from The Strokes?

From all of the backlash and disinterest about the group’s second album, Room on Fire, it seems as if people had high expectations. Did you want an exploration into drum’n’bass? How about some grandiose symphonic statement?

The fact is, on Is This It, Julian and Co. painted themselves into a bit of a corner. It’s tough to evolve a formula like that and come away successful. What The Strokes did was ignore over-thinking their sophomore release and focus on fleshing out the sonic characteristics of their first. Which we should feel lucky for, by the way, because Room on Fire is the most pleasantly surprising album of the year.

The biggest change to be found on Room on Fire is how much guitarists Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi have grown. They’ve honed their skills and are trying on a few new sounds—take for example tracks like “12:51” and “The End Has No End,” where the lead guitar actually sounds like a synth fresh out of the eighties. While the guitars still follow a direct line from Is This It, they’re tinkered with enough and feature more depth now. The bad news is that Valensi and Hammond are the only ones that have seemingly sought out to improve their playing. Julian Casablancas hasn’t bothered to broaden his range; the vocals, lyrics, and songwriting haven’t gotten noticeably better. Luckily, the songwriting was already strong to begin with and Casablancas’ vocals, while not a great example of how to sing, compliment the music well.

Highlights include “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “Automatic Stop” and “Between Love and Hate,” but the best song on Room on Fire, and actually the best song The Strokes have ever written is “Under Control,” which finds the boys trying on their 50s hat and sees Julian crooning: “You are young, darling / for now but not for long.” It’s a gorgeous song, rivaling “Someday” in the pure strength that it carries.

So it seems, if we’re speaking retrospectively, that The Strokes are emerging from the 1970s garage-punk revival that made them so popular to begin with and are starting to carry a shade of the 80s as well. It may not change the world, and it may not be as good as Is This It. There is bound to be a split in opinion over Room on Fire between those who were expecting The Greatest Album of All Time and those who were expecting The Strokes to be a flash in the pan. Well, they’ve emerged in the middle. But The Strokes have never been ones to care about such things, that’s shown in the music. Love ’em or hate ’em, you’ve got to respect that kind of nonchalance. Maybe all the hype over The Strokes was overdone after all, but with songs like this, who cares?