Room on Fire
hen I was younger, I had a lot of strange listening habits. For instance, I vowed in 1995 to listen to no music made after 1970- except for bands that had pre-existed and had released albums before that date. This sort of formalist exercise wasn’t really much of an experiment- it was closer to an ideological stance. One of the bands that I chose an as an exception- The Residents- were close enough to the roots of this ideological stance that I could justify their inclusion in my listening habits. It was The Commercial Album, specifically, that didn’t challenge my adherence to the three minute verse chorus pop song’s primacy. I took the Residents at their word. Yes! The pop song is thirty second bites. I believed that this is what music should be.
And, at the same time, I created a composite of what these people that created the songs should look like- four people (guitar, bass, vocals, drums)- with slight differences thrown in every once in a while. Arguably, the greatest bands of all time play directly into these narratives and, maybe unconsciously, I knew this in 1995- I knew that I didn’t want the variance- I wanted the Beatles, the Byrds, the Doors, and early Pink Floyd- and that’s it. I knew that everything else had to be bloated, had to be extraneous, had to be something that could easily have been done in this three minute format.
It’s not 1995, though, and it’s certainly not 1965, but the second-most written about band of recent years is acting like it is. There are five members, no song is longer than three and a half minutes and they’re all varying degrees of cute. In fact, the group holds so closely to this grand rockist narrative that if you want to talk about the greatest bands of this new decade you’re really missing the point if the Strokes don’t at least enter into the discussion. Because, you know, they’ve released two very strong albums- if it was good enough for Television, it should be good enough for you.
And while Is This It? is undoubtedly the finer document, Room on Fire is easily the Adventure to Is This It?’s Marquee Moon. “What Ever Happened?” starts the album off benefiting from a great guitar solo and some interesting production on the drums which somehow make them sound as though Fabrizio Moretti is banging on trash cans during the bridge.
After the relative misfire of “Reptilia”- it sounds like it will never end, even if it’s only 3:36, and also as though two songs have been grafted into one another, rather than a seamless flow from verse to chorus to bridge- “Automatic Stop” brings the album back to normal. The song features interlocking parts that would sound ridiculous if taken out of context, but when placed together complete an engaging and catchy puzzle. This is followed by “12:51”, which is the single. With good reason.
Later highlights include “Under Control”- see the Strokes do ballads!- “The End Has No End”- see the Strokes do new wave!- and “I Can’t Win”- see the Strokes at their most polished and finely tuned! But, the overall effect of the album is less about highlights and more about infinite shades of quality. The secret to the Strokes success isn’t blinding brilliance- although certain songs sometimes approach it. Instead, what the Strokes trade in is formalism. This is what they do- they don’t ape other bands. They ape pop music. And they do it better than any other band right now.