The Strokes were greeted with not a little suspicion when they first emerged in 2001, immaculately coiffured proffering their debut Rough Trade endorsed EP The Modern Age and subsequently, their first full-length LP Is This It.
They appeared suspiciously clean despite the distressed and ripped jeans a la Roberta Bayley’s fabulously grimy cover shot from the Ramones’ eponymously titled 1976 classic.
Upon first hearing The Strokes, there was nothing particularly original about their sound, but they clearly had spirit. From the Cars to Television with a polite nod to the Velvet Underground with possibly a little of the Lenny Kaye compiled Nuggets 1965-1668.
“Is This It” with its soporific drum intro, is the Strokes’ account opener proper and it’s almost apologetic. If you check most artists’ debut albums, the first track’s usually a fast paced grab-‘em-by-the-throat fast-paced affair. Clearly the Strokes felt that they were too cool for that. And they were.
Once all of the instruments made each other’s acquaintance, there was clearly something else going on sonically. Each instrument seemed to sit in its own space, there were very few effects apart from those applied to lead singer Julian Casablancas’ vocals, which appeared in turn to have taken a cue from the Pixies’ Black Francis.
Listen to the coda from the mercurial “All Over the World” from 1990’s Bossa Nova, and then remember that that album’s producer, Gil Norton, was originally slated to produce Is This It. However, those tentative sessions came to naught, and Gordon Raphael, who was already cognizant of the band, was eventually drafted in.patial feel was something that the mercurial Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett had used when piecing together Joy Divisions’ dense debut Unknown Pleasures in 1980.
The titular “Soma,” with its hit and run pace, is derived from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “Delicious soma, half a gram” suggests that it could be a nominal reference to “uppers.” But knowing this band’s penchant for slyness it could also likely be a reference to downers or heroin (“Say I’ve been doing this for 25 years / but I’m not listening no more”).
The first half of the verse’s vocal jumps up an octave just prior to the beginning of the second half of the verse, then remains there and carries on thus into the constant into the chorus. Clever. Casablancas slouches and slurs, but like 1960’s Vegas Rat Packer Dean Martin, renowned for drunken, melodically wayward singing, it appears to be just for effect. Neat, just like Julian’s tipple of choice.
“Barely Legal” appears to be as straightforward as the title implies, so it’s difficult to read a sample lyric like “I wanna steal your innocence” as anything other than an invitation to a teenage tryst. Musically it thrums along nicely and showcases Fabrizio Moretti’s drumming, possessed of a machine-tooled precision. The third verse features some incredible guitar work from Nick Valensi, who opts for a choppy dissonance which serves as a cool counterpoint to the sing-song vocal.
“Someday” has an autumnal feel as it slowly unfurls and seems to envelop and coagulate around Casablancas’ vocal. Interesting how the wall of guitars does not yield as the vocal begins as would normally happen in standard song writing dynamics to create space.
“Alone Together” is nothing less than a bleak, paranoid, uneasy lovers vignette touching on the “can’t-live-with-or-without-you” dichotomy. The uneasiness of the song is counterbalanced on the verses by a nagging guitar riff, high bass notes and Casablancas’ blank and ennui heavy vocal. The descending riffs on the nominally quick chorus are followed by a guitar break that seems to try to unravel a clichéd metal riff, then wishes it hadn’t bothered. The art of sequencing song order on an album is not really discussed these days but here we have a prima facie example of how crucial it is to get it right to impart a feeling or mood.
“Last Nite” is just a simple joyous stomp, and it’s the only groove song on the album which makes it stand out even more. It just glides. The fact that it crops up at this late point shows an admirable lack of convention. We are the Strokes and it goes where we want it to.
“New York City Cops” found itself embroiled in post 9/11 paranoia, because of the accusatory pay off line, “New York City Cops, they ain’t too smart!” It’s a yin-yang, left-right combination of a scuzzy, fizzing garage song on the verses which is then abridged with a quick change up and then it hurtles into a clanging two note sky scraping chorus that’s very nearly the size of the concrete sentinels that populate Gotham.
“Trying Your Luck” just oozes class with its mournful and melancholic minor key verse. It’s simplicity itself with Casablancas virtually crooning with just a bass, a chiming guitar and a near drum machine-like pattern for company. It has a dignity that’s quickly followed by a pinball-like series of vocal entreaties and argumentative guitars. And just when you think the song is about falter and fall, it drops down a gear and then we’re on safe ground again and safely back into the verse. Clearly it’s bringing the album to its denouement point and it does so with a quiet & determined purpose.
Thus far we’ve been through several stylistic changes mostly with success, but “Take It or Leave It” is almost a composite of the previous ten songs that dovetails into its intro and verse. But its chorus has a texture we’ve not encountered before, a venom-spitting one full of bile and ire.
To an appropriate tapestry of harsh chording, Casablancas virtually shouts: “He’s gonna break your back for a chance / He’s gonna steal your friends if he can!”
It’s a bruising and dramatic way to conclude the album and leaves you wondering, “Is that it?” Or even, “Is This It.” Ah, we seem to have come full circle …