Why Has the Strokes' Comeback Tanked?
The great hope of rock and roll critics at the start of the 21st century, the Strokes, released their newest record Comedown Machine last month. It was met with the sort of lukewarm reviews that the band has been receiving for years now; about the greatest compliment anyone can give it is that "it's better than their last one."
Photo by Craig Hlavaty
What went wrong? Prior to their break from releasing albums between the years 2006 and 2011, the band had been critical darlings and the hippest band to like since Pavement hit the airwaves. This was the band everyone had been waiting for to prevent the death of rock at the hands of R&B and hip-hop. So what the hell happened?
Well, to begin with, let's look at the band's earliest days. Coming out of New York City, the Strokes were a breath of fresh air in the post-Britpop landscape of indie-rock. They had a laid-back rock sound that evoked the best of David Bowie and Iggy Pop's late-'70s work and sounded like a band fresh out of the garage making noises that teenagers could actually hum along to. No cheese, none of the garbage nu-metal trappings of radio rock of the time, and no pretension.
They came on with a sound that today is commonplace, but at the time was a revolution. It was a rejection of everything that had made mainstream rock overwrought, clichéd, and annoying after Nirvana, while also being catchy and vital enough to overcome people's aversions to the weirdness and rawness of prior indie-rock. It didn't hurt either that the members were sexy and hip, when most indie-rock musicians up that point had been weird music nerds who had neither the desire nor the capability to be sexy or hip.
They were also rocking at a time when rock's other greatest hope, Radiohead, had all but abandoned guitar-driven rock and roll music. If the biggest band in the world at the time had said "we've had enough of guitars," that meant something, but the Strokes came out unafraid to play squeally, guitar-driven rock, even while possessing some of the same root sounds as Radiohead, with their staccato bass lines and stiff, mechanical drumming.
Is This It? paved the way for bands like Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Spoon, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Phoenix to top the charts and get their songs in movies, TV shows, and advertisements when no one could have ever guessed in the previous decade that bands like those would go anywhere but into the headphones of a record-store clerk.
In effect, a band like Arcade Fire could never have taken home Album of the Year at the Grammys if people hadn't been introduced to the Strokes first.
With an album like Is This It? to ignite their fanbase, the Strokes could coast for a while purely on that. And they did. Let's be honest here, if we're discussing how vital Is This It? was to the indie-rock revolution of the past decade, we have to admit that follow-up Room on Fire did little more than toe the party line. Which is okay, because that's a common thing for sophomore records to do. It's nothing surprising, and there's nothing wrong with it really.