Classic Album Review: Is This It

At a time when nu-metal bands such as Limp Bizkit and supergroup Destiny’s Child ruled the airwaves and MTV, the Strokes redefined rock’n’roll with irresistible melodies, inventive guitars riffs and a captivating arrogance that saw them climb right to the very top.

A legend was born back in 2001. Recorded in a basement studio in Manhattan, one can vividly imagine the scene. Cigarette smoke lingering everywhere and pictures from a victoria secret catalogued littered across the wall, the Strokes debut album exemplifies rock & roll in New York, face-down pavement angst smothered in black-leather cool.

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Rough Trade had initially warned Casablancas and co. of recording in a tiny basement studio, especially after recording sessions with Pixies producer Gil Norton had sounded so promising. The results were menacing and subterranean. A vicious wall of guitar noise led by a trademark Casablancas croon, all soaked in self-indulgent late night feelings that seized the nonchalant shrug of the album’s title.

The eleven tracks featured on Is This It race by in over half an hour, with each one tightly constructed and delivered with a purposeful urgency. The key to this album is obsessiveness the Strokes have towards rhythm. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi’s intertwining, ceaseless guitar sections allow bassist Nikolai Fraiture to add Motown inspired melodies. Tracks such as ‘The Modern Age’, Hammond Jr. and Valensi manipulate proceedings into a double-rhythm, ascending guitar frenzy. There is a varnish placed on the music that seems scientific. However, things are distinctly passionate and feel-good American. The short, choppy guitar riffs and distinct drumbeats draw comparisons to the punk rock circulating around New York and London in the 70’s.

Frontman Julian Casablancas uses distance to portray emotion. Throughout the majority of the album, Casablancas seems as though he is singing through a shopping centre intercom, as if he is buzzing at the apartment asking for entry. One of his greatest skills is the insouciant pleading that is used throughout. He displays his vulnerability with an arrogance synonymous to Mick Jagger, complaining about relationships that go nowhere but won’t disappear.

Production of Is This It is stripped to the bare essentials, and not too dissimilar to their era counterparts the White Stripes. However, the difference between the two bands lies in their degrees of skill: the Stripes have an air of amateurishness that contradicts the songwriting talents of Jack White. The Strokes, even on their debut album, sound like experienced professionals for whom mastering the form seems like second nature.

There is something in the Strokes’ melodies that very few bands possess: they’re immediate, rely on the instant gratification of solid, driving guitar rhythms while maintaining strong but simple hooks that seem familiar, yet wholly original.

Released: 30th July 2001

Produced: Gordon Raphael

Tracklist:

  1. Is This It
  2. The Modern Age
  3. Soma
  4. Barely Legal
  5. Someday
  6. Alone, Together
  7. Last Nite
  8. Hard to Explain
  9. New York City Cops
  10. Trying Your Luck
  11. Take it or Leave it

Words: Matthew Thomas

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