By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
In 2001, The Strokes' debut album "Is This It" set off a garage rock revival; the grunge boom of the '90s in miniature. Like Nirvana a decade earlier, The Strokes were awash in buzz and major-label interest, with RCA eventually signing the band of early 20-something New Yorkers to a multimillion-dollar contract for five albums, the last of which, "Comedown Machine," was released this spring.
Along with top-tier acts such as The White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a slew of lesser "the" bands came along in the wide wake of The Strokes: The Vines, The Hives, The Mooney Suzuki, The Von Bondies, among others. Then Jet arrived and, just as Creed and Seven Mary Three did to grunge before them, pretty much killed the whole thing.
"Is This It," however, remains an unsullied, forever-preserved-in-amber, perfect rock 'n' roll album.
Some may tell you, derisively, that it's derivative of The Velvet Underground or Television -- a classic case of style over substance. Maybe, but when you have style this impeccable, it's enough. And The Velvet Underground began as a project by Andy Warhol, so let's not pretend image wasn't a large part of their appeal, too.
The airtight rhythm section, hooks as finely wrought as nesting dolls, and the boozy, bored swagger of lead singer Julian Casablancas shrugged off, rather than repudiated, the nu-metal and post-grunge bloat that defined modern rock radio. The Strokes, attractive trust-fund kids with tousled hair in tight-fitting vintage duds, were too cool to care about saving anything, rock or otherwise.
The next album, "Room on Fire" in 2003, was nearly as good, but, despite the addition of some keyboards, was criticized for hewing too closely to the original. "First Impressions of Earth" in 2006 was the band's bid for ambitious, world-conquering arena rock, but the execution was muddled and the result felt like an awkward mix of two different bands.
By the time "Angles" was released five years later in 2011, band members were playing in numerous side projects and Casablancas recorded his contributions separately from his band mates.
Now, here we are, 12 years after "Is This It," and it very well could be it for The Strokes. Unless there's a need to make some quick cash -- and given that they're not even bothering to tour behind this album, money doesn't appear to be a pressing concern -- I'd wager the wan '80s synth-rock of "Comedown Machine" will be the band's final release.
The biggest problem with "Comedown Machine" is it never makes a case for its existence. "Is This It," and even "Room on Fire," felt spontaneous and essential, as if The Strokes hadn't been born the universe would've had to create them in order to fill The Strokes-shaped hole in the world.
This is partly a matter of timing. Their rise mirrored the cultural ascension of the modern hipster, which you can hardly hold against them. But being the flagship band of all those signifiers was a weight they never figured out how to carry gracefully or get out from underneath of.
If this is the last Strokes album, there are some good tunes on it. Despite being the most left-field song on the album, "One Way Trigger," where Casablancas sings in a falsetto over a dinky, ping-ponging keyboard riff, is great, and "Welcome to Japan," filled with hilarious non sequiturs, might've been a hit for Duran Duran in 1985.
And it finally answers the question, "How do the cool kids grow up?" They go back in time, apparently.