The Strokes are living proof that you can be too cool for your own good. The New York band’s fine 2001 debut album, Is This It?, churned up such a hype vortex that the backlash began almost before the accolades did. The sound and look seemed too carefully targeted to alternakids and rock critics, who tend to be a cynical audience anyway. The rapid rise to major-label status reinforced notions that some svengali had cooked up a garage-rock edition of the prefab boy band. The Strokes can hardly deny that they: • Are young and photogenic, in a sensitive-bad-boy sort of way • Observe an artsy but street-smart black-only dress code • Boast a high percentage of semi-celebrity pedigrees and exotic European birth names • Sometimes display their influences too transparently, those being the Velvet Underground and various other lo-fi icons But that list is neither a condemnation nor a recipe for mainstream success, no matter how many magazine covers you put it on. Far from a commercial juggernaut, The Strokes have seen only modest marketplace response to their two albums. More and more, they’re looking like a respectable, no-nonsense rock quintet with limited profit potential and unusually hummable songs. There is much to recommend here. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi create drama with their clever and economical guitar lines. The rhythm section of Fab Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture holds down the groove and stays out of the way, just like it should. Vocalist/songwriter Julian Casablancas has a sense of melody and an air of vulnerability that are rare among his contemporaries. Beneath that tinny, compressed vocal effect, which is getting tiresome after two albums, he is actually a crooner. After a long bout of touring behind Is This It?, the band didn’t begin work on the follow-up until spring 2003. The first sessions were with producer Nigel Godrich of Radiohead and Beck fame, whose vision quickly proved too visionary for the band, according to press accounts. The Strokes rebounded into the arms of their previous producer, Gordon Raphael, and quickly busted out the album they released last fall, Room on Fire. Not surprisingly, it sounds like Volume 2 of its predecessor. But more of a good thing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Room on Fire sees The Strokes deliver satisfying guitar workouts (“Reptilia” and “I Can’t Win”) and dabble effectively in reggae rhythms (“Automatic Stop”). And aside from the obvious punk and power-pop influences, Motown and Stax grooves still bubble through the mix. The restrained, soulful R&B number “Under Control” is one of the album’s highlights. For sure, it wouldn’t hurt these guys to stretch a little more on their next album. Maybe they should give Godrich another shot. But until then, their diligent pop craftsmanship should not be dismissed. So give it up for The Strokes. The longer they keep it together, the more interesting they’re going to get. Music scribe Scott Hall lives online at www.onthebeat.org.
Who: The Strokes When: Friday, 8 p.m. Where: Murat Egyptian Room; Tickets: $25 advance, $27 day of show