But the buzz can’t be wrong, can it? After all, these guys saved rock and roll two years ago, didn’t they? Are the White Stripes disappearing ala Marty McFly as we speak at the mere thought of the Strokes making an underwhelming record?
In a word, no. The world did just fine before the Strokes came along, and we’ll do fine whether the Strokes make albums like 2001’s critical fave Is This It?, or albums like their newest, Room on Fire, which for the record sounds just like Is This It?, only not as interesting, thanks to its familiarity.
Leadoff track “What Ever Happened?” does hint that minor changes are afoot, with an opening rhythm that suggests that the band is more interested in the groove this time around. (It has a great opening lyric, too: “I want to be forgotten/And I don’t want to be reminded.”) This groove approach pops up again in “Automatic Stop” and “Between Love & Hate,” with both songs slinking along with the wisdom that only experience can bring (anyone can play fast; it takes a pro to work a groove). Might we be seeing an older, wiser Strokes this time around?
The answer is both a resounding yes and defiant no. “Under Control” is a pretty little number (dare I say, a ballad) that, with slightly different production, could have been a Mersey beat number from the 1960s. It might be the best thing the band’s ever done. To get to that song, though, you must plow through “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” which is the epitome of a Strokes song but in a bad way, the kind of song the band can write in their sleep.
And that’s where the problem lies in Room on Fire. When the songs are cooking, the fact that it sounds just like the last album is irrelevant, but when the songwriting is thin, the sound gets irritating. One wonders how things would have been if Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, Travis), their first choice to produce the album, had actually seen the project to completion. Instead, both parties decided it wasn’t working, and the band brought back longtime producer Gordon Raphael. Pity. Godrich has a good sense of knowing when to interfere and when to step back and leave things alone. Room on Fire would certainly have been a much different album with him at the helm, but is that such a bad thing if the album winds up being better as a result? The best bands embrace change, not fear it. The Strokes would be wise to do the same next time around.