For our latest Album Of The Week we take a look back at one of the most acclaimed records of the 21st century so far and one of rock music’s great debuts.
The history of debut lp’s in rock music is a chequered one. Some bands – many in fact – take a few years and albums to really get in to their stride, something much more common in the pre-21st century age when major labels showed a greater degree of patience with new artists, allowing them time to grow and flourish artistically. Think of the likes of, say, U2, Led Zeppelin or Blur and you’ll see what I mean.
Then there are those bands who seem to arrive fully-formed and perfectly realised with debut lp’s that act as crystal clear statements of intent, from Jimi Hendrix to The Stone Roses to Rage Against The Machine and beyond. Is This It is one of those.
When it arrived in mid-2001 guitar music was in what some thought was a terminal slump. Once the bubbles of grunge and Britpop had burst in the late 90’s there seemed to be a musical vacuum that no-one was stepping forward to fill. Hip-hop, R&B, and dance music ruled and for the umpteenth time since it’s birth it was tempting to think that rock and roll had maybe run out of steam.
However, as history shows just as we think the whole guys-with-guitars thing has run it’s natural course along comes a band and a record to breathe life back in to it. And so it proved with Is This It. Released to almost universally favourable reviews, especially over here in Britain, this was one of those joyously life-affirming records that immediately got under your skin and simply refused to leave. I remember buying it on the strength of one of those reviews and playing little else for months on end. As it did for so many others, it reaffirmed my belief in the power of rock music and quickly became an all-time favourite.
The power of Is This It lays in it’s simplicity. With just 11 songs and a running time of about 35 minutes there is no room for a wasted note or superflous extra chorus. Not only that but the sound itself is lacking in any layers of grand production or gimmicky effects. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. have clean, unadorned sounds, whilst bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti keep things tight and simple, grooving but never over-playing a single lick or beat. The sound harks back to the new-wave movement of the post-punk era, direct and to the point; controlled and never straining itself.
On top of this singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas, who sings through a cheap practice amp to get a lo-fi sound, delivers his tales of urban lives and relationships in a manner that is very rock and roll but understated at the same time with no over-the-top screaming or screeching, just cool and measured. Tracks like ‘The Modern Age’, ‘Barely Legal’ and ‘Alone, Together’ fizz along perfectly, hitting the spot and never outstaying their welcome. There are no long guitar solos or epic fade-outs, and every song comes in under the 4-minute mark. It leaves you wanting to go back for more. And more. And more.
Whilst The Strokes would go on to make a very good second lp and produce occasional bursts of brilliance they never delivered anything as perfectly realised again. And whilst some might find that to be a bit of a shame I’m thankful that they ever gave us something like it in the first place.