Room on Fire
When The Strokes released the retro garage-pop debut Is This It at the end of 2001, it was supposed to change the face of modern rock ‘n’ roll and become as popular as Nirvana’s Nevermind.
The album’s wake, however, was important on a smaller scale, influencing a new wave of indie bands sporting raw and retro tunes and one-syllable names (see The Hives and The Vines).
Is This It also garnered The Strokes the title of heirs to the relatively vacant rock ‘n’ roll throne, meaning that the band’s next offering was going to be “THE BIG ONE.”
While the long-awaited Room on Fire is not the album crowning critics have been waiting for, its most significant aspect can’t be stressed enough — this band has serious talent. At the very least, Room on Fire showcases a musical maturity and innovative aptitude not prevalent within the confines of the band’s brilliant but creatively constricted debut venture.
The record kicks off with the self-pitying anthem “What Ever Happened?” With a more emotionally excruciating performance than usual by vocalist Julian Casablancas, the song opens with Casablancas screaming, “I want to be forgotten/And I don’t want to be reminded.”
This possible comment on his band’s early acclaim and expectations is a perfect segue into The Strokes’ new pioneering playland.
“Reptilia” is the track that really starts the fun. Bass-y reverb leads into an alarm of guitars behind a cooly brooding Casablancas, followed by a white-hot guitar lick that gives way to an explosive chorus of wailing vocals and hammering drums.
After introducing the first of the album’s various electronic beat-makers on the starry-eyed sing-along “Automatic Stop,” The Strokes invite listeners to frolic through the Candyland fields of Room on Fire’s lead single, “12:51.” While it may be all sugary-sweet and filled with gooey electronics, this tune doesn’t bode well as ROF’s initial representation for anxious critics and the record-buying public.
Unfortunately for The Strokes’ pushing the envelope of innovation, the rest of this album — save for the subdued, wedding reception rock balladry of “Under Control” that could also be classified as “The Strokes do The Temptations” — divides into two categories.
The best songs find The Strokes playing glaring Is This It b-sides, while the under-par (but still better than most other music in the mainstream market today) tunes are the ones where the band plays creative chemistry with its electronics set.
“Meet Me in the Bathroom” was written while the band was extensively touring for Is This It and is supposedly inspired by Courtney Love’s sexual advances toward various band members.
The song’s bouncing bass leads into some vintage strummy Strokes guitar, backing a submissive Casablancas lyric, “Meet me in the bathroom/That’s what she said/I don’t mind.”
The closing track, “I Can’t Win,” is an inspiring ditty that finds these boys at their garage poppiest, once again recalling the best Technicolor rock from Is This It.
Room on Fire may not be the all-encompassing rock savior that it is being hailed as — hey, it’s not even as good as the band’s debut album — but the record is The Strokes’ innovative take on the retro-rock it plays so well. This is a Strokes album that reminds music fans and critics that if this stuff doesn’t turn you on, you don’t have any buttons, baby.