No Smoking

Hooked: Can the Strokes get back their nineties verve?Photo: Colin Lane

The Strokes
Room on Fire (RCA)

For all the comparisons to the late seventies, the Strokes’ Is This It was really about the excitement of living in New York at the turn of the millennium. It was excitement not about the bull-market economy but about the notion that there were other artists and musicians like you who’d survived the nineties. And it was about the anticipation of the passing of the Giuliani era (“NYC Cops” seemed like a swipe less at the NYPD than at the cruelty of the age of Diallo and Dorismond). I’m not sure if the Strokes meant it or not, but Is This It was the perfect catchphrase for a moment pregnant with possibilities: Would the recession make Manhattan accessible to the less-than-superrich again? Would we elect a mayor who would let us dance?

If the optimism of the moment faded (we can’t dance, much less smoke, and the average price of an apartment is over $900,000), the positivist energy of Is This It endured. And the Strokes became more important than anyone could have predicted: It’s impossible to imagine bands like the Rapture, Out Hud, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs flourishing without them. The Strokes were gracious about their success, too, acting as ambassadors for a rock scene that’s usually defined by careerism.

The Strokes’ goodwill carries over to their second album, Room on Fire. It feels typically sunny—taut yet expansive guitar playing, hand claps and new-wave-era sounds—and lead singer Julian Casablancas has that elated/exhausted voice that’s sort of rock comfort food. Casablancas could be Tom Verlaine or Jonathan Richman, but he could also be your next-door neighbor who got home at noon on Saturday after partying through the night, looking fevered instead of fatigued.

But the easygoing nature of Is This It feels worn on Room on Fire. It isn’t the album’s brevity that disappoints—eleven songs in 33 minutes—but its familiarity. Here, Casablancas’s laconic drawl becomes samey, torpid. And while no one should expect sonic innovations from the Strokes, their wiry sound has become ossified (they could be modeling themselves after a monochromatic band like the Ramones, but the invention at the heart of the Ramones was obviously a lot more radical). The central flaw of Room on Fire is the lack of hooks. Is This It was so hooky that its grooves were appropriated by dance-music producers. The same can’t be said of Room on Fire; I struggled to detect signs of life within its flatness and found myself congratulating the band for minor risks.

The Strokes have inverted the keyed-up energy of their debut. Instead of asking “Is This It?,” we’re left wondering if that’s all.

Ricardo Villalobos
Alcachofa (Playhouse)

Like free jazz, minimal techno is defined by an inaccessibility that borders on divisiveness. But for producer and D.J. Ricardo Villalobos, the stripped-down sounds are a means to express not obtuseness but a sense of detail so rich and fully explored that nearly every sound is rewarding.

On his first album, Alcachofa (Spanish for “artichoke”), Villalobos breathes miraculous new life into minimal-techno meticulousness. The simplest sounds—the rustle of a snare drum, a snatch of vocals looped repeatedly—induce a trancelike state. It’s not a dulling feeling, though; you’re aware of Villalobos’s every move. Alcachofa is bookended by two astounding singles—“Easy Lee,” which not only rescues the vocoder from emotionless camp but transforms it into a real blues vehicle, and “Dexter,” which has a plaintive, end-of-the-night keyboard tone that matches the work of the great house-music producer Larry Heard for evocativeness. Heard’s productions were so visceral and emotional that he titled one song “Can You Feel It?” Villalobos boldly poses the same question on Alcachofa, and as with Heard, only the soulless can say no.

No Smoking