THE STROKES - IS THIS IT
The Strokes - Is This It
standard black vinyl (2015 European pressing)
Is This It. What hasn't been said about this iconic debut in 20 years that needs my input? Fuck all, really. But my magic wheel span onto this record, so it is to be covered, and also the New-York quintet quite rightly won their first ever Grammy as The New Abnormal was given the Best Rock Album accolade over the weekend. So, with such a well-earned monumental moment under their belts, how about we rewind to 2001 with The Strokes to, well, "When It Started".
I begin by talking about this perfectly normal tune because it's got one hell of a backstory. The Strokes has embarked on a world tour, and thus released their album strategically as they went from country to country, with Australia coming first on July 30th, then Japan on August 22nd, so it didn't truly make its Western debut until August 27th when the album released in the UK, the place where the band were hailed as the new kings of rock 'n' roll. You'll notice on each of these releases, "When It Started" doesn't actually appear on the tracklist, as "New York City Cops" sits in its place. So why the change? The answer is bleak but straightforward: 9/11. The album had already been mired in controversy in the US for its saucy cover, and was changed to a less iconic artwork in anticipation of the September 25th CD release, but after the 9/11 attacks in New York, RCA and the band didn't think it'd be a good idea to keep the song on there, so "When It Started", the B-side to the 7" single release of "Last Nite", was put in its place, as well as being put forward for the also-delayed Spider-Man soundtrack. It should be noted that the LP release of Is This It occurred on the same date as the September 11th attacks, thus making it the only physical US release to include the original tracklist until it was repressed in 2011. As of 2021, however, "When It Started" can solely be found only in Europe on the "Last Nite" single releases.
That's enough talking about a song that's not even on my copy of the LP. Is This It begins with a slow-burning title track, reminiscent of something Pixies would've conjured in an alternate universe where Black Francis allowed Kim Deal some more creative space. Everything bobs along ever so pleasantly here, with Nikolai Fraiture's fun bassline and Fabrizio Moretti's simple soft beat setting the stage for the flirting melodic guitar work of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, complimented by Julian Casablancas' sleazy Velvet Underground vocal delivery. It's an opening that demonstrates everything The Strokes are about: minimal fuss, tight craftsmanship, and a raw approach. Pop and rock music in 2001 could sometimes feel overblown, so the bare bones production throughout was, for the time, a welcome change, and it still holds strong 20 years on. Through headphones, you can hear the grit and raw efficiency of The Strokes; the rumble of the bass guitar through Moretti's kit at times, the slight crackle of Casablancas' croon through a Peavey practice amp, the crunch and bite of a RATT distortion pedal through a Fender amp. This kind of production could mar such a young band, but it's a choice that elevates The Strokes' sound.
On the following tracks, the clean yet dirty feel of "Is This It" is developed further; "The Modern Age" is the first taste of Valensi's frantic lead work with a bendy solo that borders on guitar heroism but doesn't go full-on AC/DC, "Soma" is an elastic ditty with a mesmerising simple guitar hook during the choruses and verses, and "Barely Legal" is a melodic monolith, with Valensi and Hammond Jr. continuously bonding like Gorilla Glue throughout, again set up by Moretti's almost robotic performance on drums and Casablancas' softly vintage vocals. A majority of the album, penned by Casablancas, discusses life and relationships formed in New York City, and on "Someday", he reminisces about the past. It's a theme touched on in "The Modern Age" (a song about how strange (circa. 2000) modern life was), but it's the retrospective outlook on "Someday" where the lyricism is truly masterful, matching the band's sound perfectly in a tight 3-minute package of goodness, giving side A a gorgeous finish.
Side B begins with a less laidback sound and a more abrasive delivery, with "Alone, Together", a song that has a protagonist struggling with alcoholism as an escape from a rough relationship, but still going through the motions to keep it all together. It builds from the ground up to a frantic final minute, with a tense guitar solo and a more emotional Casablancas peeling back the layers of his character, giving the second side a brilliant start. So what could follow this up? "Last Nite" is timeless. It was a banger then, it's a banger now, and it would've been a banger in most decades before. And although it cheekily rips from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "American Girl" (Petty laughed when they admitted to the theft and said, "OK, good for you"), "Last Nite" is where The Strokes become titans, an unstoppable frontrunner in the garage rock revival of the 21st century. Everything comes to fruition here, with the whole band swirling together into a piece of sonic glory, especially on the delicious guitar solo, one of the highlights of any record released in 2001. "Hard To Explain" follows, and it's the breeziest song here, although it should be noted that the attention to making the drums sound so punchy is a delight to listen to, every beat striking and hitting like an 80s drum machine, but the rest of the instrumentation starts to feel like a retread to prior engagements on the album. It's onto "New York City Cops" next, the song cut from US releases, and it's the punkiest The Strokes go on Is This It, lending from the city's vast punk history with The Ramones, Television and New York Dolls. From the feedback that leads into guitar playing armed with piranha teeth and the heart racing pace of the verses to the anthemic chorus highlighted by a siren-like lead and Moretti's scrappiest drum performance of the record (in the best kind of way), it really is a shame the track had to be left off of American releases for so long, as it's arguably the second-best tune, just under the big single energy of "Last Nite". The rest of the album is more mellow than its preceding numbers, but both of them still have that frenetic energy held throughout the LP; "Trying Your Luck" is a well-paced jam, with a brisk riff and enjoyable leads, but it feels more like the filler or entrée to the album's closer, " Take It Or Leave It", a near perfect closing track with tremendous rhythm work in its bones, melodic brilliance in its core, and guitars that flood the track with emotion as they squeal away until the final note hits and it's all over.
As for this 2015 pressing, it's a solid re-release, although one does wonder how an original 2001 copy compares to this. The vinyl format does admittedly compliment the band's sound quite a lot, and it is sonically crisp upon each and every spin.
Overall, you aren't left asking yourself the album's title after a listen, moreso readying your ears for another spin or perhaps taking a dive into their 2003 follow-up Room On Fire. You wouldn't be blamed for doing so either, as Is This It is an instant classic that has aged perfectly and has influenced and inspired countless guitar bands in the 20 years since its release and iS unmistakably a slice of pure indie rock royalty.
FFO: The Velvet Underground, Guided By Voices, The Stooges