You probably remember the Cambrian Explosion of the infamous “the” bands-the Vines, the Hives, the Strokes, the White Stripes-from your high school or early college career. Although the similarity between these bands (beyond sharing a common definite article) was questionable, the MTV audience tended to group them all as, in essence, the same band. This general homogenizing resulted in a need for each band to create their own identity as something more than a faceless part of the supposed “garage rock/minimalist revolution.” Marked by their easy-going attitude, however, the Strokes never actively tried to appear different from the rest, but soon the music community began to find something charming about the effortless riffs and raspy vocals of “Is This It.” Simplicity doesn’t always enthrall a listener, but the Strokes certainly swept millions off their feet with their unadorned, catchy beats.
The Strokes showcase their creativity with their new installment of songs. The tracks on “Room on Fire” reflect more hints of pop influence in comparison to their first album, but overall, the same formula remains: upbeat instrumental coupled with gloomy lyrics. In “Someday,” arguably the most poppy song off “Is This It,” lead vocalist Julian Casablancas sings, “You see, alone we stand, together we fall apart.” Similarly downcast in “Between Love and Hate,” he declares in the chorus, “I never needed anybody / I never needed nobody / It won’t change now.” In fact, the instrumental part of the song takes on an even more cheerful tone when Casablancas sings this line. In general, when I listen to the Strokes, I constantly find myself happily tapping my foot along with dispirited remarks such as, “Oh baby, I feel so down.” Recently, I’ve realized that this oxymoronic reaction just might be my favorite element of the Strokes’ music. Casablancas serenades you with strained vocals and dejected lyrics, but the instrumental underneath forces you to mindlessly bob your head as if you were listening to the new Liz Phair album.
Another notable attribute of the Strokes’ new release is the songs’ unexpected ability to raise your spirits. From the first strum to the last, it is difficult not to momentarily forget about the preoccupations of the day. For 35 minutes, the Strokes have you engaged. Again, there’s nothing necessarily profound about their music, but the lyrics and the beats somehow seduce you into complacency.
If anything, this effect is the most salient difference between the two albums. Because of the album’s ability to elicit a smile, “Room on Fire” is even more radio-friendly than their first album. With such a pop-rock debut as “Is This It,” I didn’t think it was possible. But, unlike some of the songs on “Is This It,” any song on the latest album would make a suitable single. However, I wouldn’t say this distinction really affects the overall value or effectiveness of the music.
To say that these mild disparities between the two prevent “Room on Fire” from being an achievement would be erroneous. The combination of a majority of signature songs like “Meet Me in the Bathroom” and a few others that show the Strokes flexing a bit of inventiveness, like the Motown-suggestive “Under Contro,” is more than satisfying. I personally am put off by bands that pride themselves in actively “re-inventing” their sound each time they release an album. Creating music shouldn’t be so contrived, and the Strokes understand that.
Besides a few hand-claps and dance beats, the Strokes create a sound on “Room on Fire” that reflects little divergence from “Is This It,” but manage to leave you wondering why you’d ever want it to. Perhaps the new album doesn’t exactly refute the popular complaint that the Strokes rely on having a garage-rock schtick rather than musical talent, but it certainly does show that a few chords go a long way.