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Different Strokes

Can the Next Big Thing survive the hype machine?

By Gina Arnold

CONSIDER it a fate worse than death--commercial death, that is, the only kind that a rock band fears. Real death would at least make you a legend in your own time, but commercial death = silence, and silence is, as someone once said, a dangerous sound.

Well before Sept. 11, the hip new band the Strokes was being hailed as the Next Big Thing by the British press; the group was also being termed "the quintessential New York City band."

Next Big Thing is bad enough: a tag that will get even the finest band on earth reviled, as hipper-than-thou critics fall all over themselves to prove that it's not, just to be ornery. But the other is even worse. After all, what is the quintessential New York City band? The Velvet Underground? Blondie? The Ramones? The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Puff Daddy, Sonic Youth?

Those bands exude sex, danger, artiness, addiction and other big-city attributes that (used to) scream Big Apple. The Strokes don't really exude any of these things, being more on the soft side--singer/songwriters with a punchy beat and a whimsical sensibility.

One could argue that what makes the Strokes "New Yorky" is the fact that four of the band's five members grew up there and they got their start as the de facto house band at the Mercury Lounge on Houston Street, but geography isn't destiny.

Another thing the Strokes aren't is working class. The NYC-based band is made up of the children of rich people: lead singer Julian Cassavetes' father, for example, runs the Elite modeling agency, while Albert Hammond Jr.'s dad wrote the song "It Never Rains in Southern California" (among others).

I give the Strokes credit for not pretending to be anything other than what they are. Rock isn't basketball: the myth that it is best made by blue-collar joes is gone for good. Rock is made by kids who are rich enough to afford the equipment, a practice space and the possibility of failure--and that means by people like the Strokes.

The Strokes are an excellent band, but the "quintessential New York" title shows the folly of excess publicity. The label has suddenly become just a little too heavy to bear: so heavy, in fact, that the Strokes have had to delay release of their new LP in order to rid it of a song titled "New York City Cops." (The album was due out Sept. 25; but didn't arrive till this week).

This month, the Strokes will headline the Fillmore, although they haven't got a song on the radio. Even Nirvana--who'd toured for years before Nevermind took the world by storm--had nothing on that.

But such high hopes for the band may surprise listeners when they first hear the Strokes, for they don't play trendy trance, hip-hop or punk, but plain old rock--what critics like to call "garage rock," although I think that's a misnomer. The Strokes sound more like the Kinks or the Mekons than like the Ramones or the Velvets.

So what makes critics turn to jelly when they hear the Strokes? A lot of things. This Is It is a catchy and pleasing debut of a record, with songs that are easy to sing along to but aren't particularly heavy, deep or scatological.

They have that lighthearted feel that good pop always affects; a cute lead singer; and lyrics that, at the very least, are not dumb, although not deep either. The title cut bemoans the end of a romance, while "Barely Legal" celebrates youth culture--and so on.

Even so, I think the album has two strikes against it in competition for mainstream success. One, it's retro; two, it's retro for a sound that was never popular in the first place. This is the LP you get to impress your friends with your obscure knowledge of rock, not the one you get to throw on at a party.

The album has "cult classic" written all over it. Maybe the Strokes are cute enough to overcome the curse of Sept. 11, as well as their music's subtlety and intelligence. Maybe. But that implies a distribution world--MTV, VHI and the latest Napster Morpheus--that cares about this kind of music, and I just don't think that exists, yet or ever.

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From the October 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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