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The Strokes’ economy of emotion

In its measured doses, the Strokes' ‘Room on Fire’ is a great record. What’s next?
/ Source: msnbc.com

With “Room on Fire,” a driven, ambitious second album that smartly distills the giddiness and tension of life in post Sept. 11 New York, the Strokes have kicked the dreaded sophomore slump to the curb. But there’s an F word this young band is uncomfortably close to embracing, and it’s not the one singer Julian Casablancas throws around from time to time. Danger, guys: Formula dead ahead.

The much-anticipated second effort from the Strokes, the New York group that stormed to prominence in 2001, has a lot in common with “Is This It?”, the debut full-length, a record that merrily cribbed from an assortment of influences, from early Velvet Underground to Television. There’s much to suggest they’re running in place: “Room on Fire” (it’s in stores Tuesday) bears the same world-weary ennui of “Is This It?”; the same renewal of flirtation with the New Wave era; the same number of songs, the same austere, bare-bones production values, the same less than 40-minute length.

With so many similarities to the first album, the temptation might be to think they’re recycling their own recycling. Nothing could be further from the truth. Or more true.

It’s been two years since “Is This It?”; the Strokes — like the city whose downtown-demimonde lives and rituals are craftily chronicled by Casablancas, the band’s songwriter — have been through changes, changes all the more obvious the more you listen.

The New York factorThere’s the inescapable New York factor. Consider the album’s opener, “What Ever Happened?” “I wanna be forgotten, and I don’t wanna be reminded,” Casablancas sings in words that, even in a presumably romantic context, seem to mourn the past. Also, the dynamic of time surfaces again and again in his “Room on Fire” songs — of being on time, not wanting to waste time, needing a little time.

It’s an acknowledgement of life’s most irrepressible component, but it’s refreshing to hear this repeatedly explored by a band so young (oldest member 25). They’ve already begun to reckon with life’s longer shadows even while the party’s in full roar. It’s called maturity, a maturity that events in New York since “Is This It?” has certainly accelerated.

That said, there’s nothing even remotely funereal about “Room on Fire.” The band hasn’t lost its knack for kicking out more of the poppy confections that populated the first album. The new single, “12:51,” for example, owes its very existence to the late-model Cars.

There’s a lot more to appreciate: the sinewy, assured guitar tandem of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi; Fab Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture’s radar-locked drum-and-bass work; and all of it — the documentary snatches of conversation, the sturm und drang of club life — filtered through Casablancas’ lyric vision, by turns hardbitten and romantic, his voice already a chameleon instrument, switching up at will from declamatory growl to streetwise croon.

High efficiency music
The band’s celebrated ravenous work ethic is distilled in Casablancas’ philosophy: “I suck, I gotta do better, I gotta work harder.” Such cutting to the chase makes its way into their music, evidence of an efficiency of expression that undergirds everything they’ve done.

There’s a lot to be said for a band smart enough not to overstay its welcome, but sometimes the Strokes exhibit an economy you wish wasn’t so economical. More than once in this record, you listen and you’re caught up in a sound that really clicks — and then it’s over. No matter how engaging the musical idea, it reliably ends at three minutes, and often less than that.

What’s both maddening and tantalizing about this little strategy is the fact that you just know they’re holding back, or they’re unsure about their own powers as musicians. Either way, it’s an approach calculated to have ‘em coming back for more.

What listeners come back for more of is the question. In two outings, the group’s been good about appropriating rock history as a way of establishing an identity. The band so deftly borrows from its pop-cultural antecedents — raiding the closet for everything right down to the skinny ties from back in the day — that they’ve raised the stakes on establishing their own identity. “Room on Fire” is a great record, but it’s also one whose rifling of the past makes you wonder where they go from here.

Perfection? Don't forget passion
The elements are there: they’ve got the songcraft, they’ve got the attitude, they’ve got the perfect tabula rasa rock-band name, almost as good as “U2.” What’s to be seen is whether the group can expand beyond the brevity of its sound, and do it with a signature of its own.

Maybe the best new example of the Strokes’ possibilities is “Under Control,” whose raw emotion comes across with a sweet, soulful delivery, Casablancas’ baritone monotone channeled into a song that gets to the heart of the sadness of youth’s passage, and the ways in which life seems to make that passage faster all the time.

One of the press releases for “Room on Fire” tells the story of the band’s benign dilemma. “The Strokes are driven by a ceaseless desire for perfection,” it reads in part. Wanting to craft the perfect rock song is admirable — hell, it’s downright noble given a lot of what’s cranked out these days.

But in their timeless quest for perfection, the Strokes can’t lose sight of rock’s baseline emotion: passion, with all the sloppiness and rough edges that passion embodies. Perfection’s probably not possible, and in a musical context, it may not even be desirable. Rock and roll isn’t about perfection; it’s about documenting the rough edges of life in an increasingly precipitous world. It’s about risk, and the great bands take them now and then.