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The Strokes

+ {Albert Hammond, Jr.} + {Little Joy} + {Nickel Eye} + {Julian Casablancas} + {The Voidz} + {CRX}

Hype can be a joy or a jinx when it comes to greenhorn bands living up to their initial prospectus, and New York City’s 21st century boys, The STROKES, were one such combo that fitted the bill of being the “next big thing”. The right high-fashion image, the right indie/alt-rock sound, and the right middle-class background, Julian Casablancas (son of Elite Model Agency CEO, John Casablancas, and a one-time Miss Denmark), guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti – Albert Hammond, Jr. (son of country-rock star) would be added later – heartthrobs The STROKES sent palpitations among their legions from the get-go.
The STROKES began performing in 1998 where they all attended the upper-class prep school, Dwight. It was there that the group discovered their love for garage rock and quickly began pulling ideas together for songs. The sound would be halfway between LOU REED’s “ostrich guitar”, MC5’s thrash meanderings and the tunefulness of TOM PETTY. Surprisingly, the combo (then playing in a plush rehearsal room in the lower east side of Manhattan with newcomer Hammond) pulled off the technical trickery through all of their scattered influences. They debuted live in spring ‘99, performing in such venues as NYC’s Baby Jupiter and Luna. Ryan Gentles was finally brought in as manager and he helped them require spots at the Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom.
Things were almost reaching fever pitch for The STROKES, and, alongside The MOLDY PEACHES and ANDREW WK, they were becoming the most talked about band in the city. A tape, including the tracks `Soma’, `Barely Legal’ and the rip-roaring `The Modern Age’, was sent to Rough Trade in London. The label (at that time, pulling themselves out of financial difficulty) signed the band, issuing the aforesaid `The Modern Age’ single to critical acclaim. The NME went nuts, urging the record-buying public to go out and listen to this new and exciting group. Bidding wars began in America over The STROKES’ distribution, with R.C.A. emerging as the champions. Fed up with the recent import of nu-metal acts such as LINKIN PARK, LIMP BIZKIT and the soft post-grunge credentials of STAIND, the said music tabloid decided to promote The STROKES fresh-faced form of rock music between spring and summer 2001; and the group virtually overnight became the headlining act along with fellow garage rockers, The WHITE STRIPES. The question begged to be asked, however: if such publicity – and some might’ve called it hype – wasn’t used to promote this youthful garage rock band, would the public and press still have deemed them to be the saviours of rock’n’roll?
Anyhow, the single `Hard To Explain’ was issued. It reached No.16 in the British charts. Now, it seemed, this group of talented young upstarts were emerging as bona fide rock stars… even COURTNEY LOVE wrote a song about Casablancas, entitled `But Julian, I Am Much Older Than You’. Not since the days of punk, new wave and the CBGB’s had one witnessed such fuss.
With all of the commotion, the humble and ironically titled debut album IS THIS IT {*9} was premiered amid much anticipation in early September 2001. It had already reached No.2 in the UK, even with its risque Helmut Newton-inspired cover (which was refused by Woolworths and HMV). But as the band watched the Twin Towers collapse from their rehearsal room on September 11, they decided to pull the song `New York City Cops’ from the American release of the set. Perhaps not one of their better moves, as the above mentioned song was a blinder; perhaps the best track on the LP, and a genuine audience favourite. `Last Nite’ appeared as a single at the end of 2001, with a video accompanied by Roman Coppolla, featuring a live performance from the band. Things were looking bright at the turn of the year, with the addition of a few new tracks, a sold-out tour of Britain and the re-admission of `NYC Cops’ into the live brew.
After dabbling with RADIOHEAD producer Nigel Godrich for their sophomore album, the group and Godrich departed citing musical differences, leaving the recording duties up to Gordon Raphael. They worked “soldier’s hours” in his basement and churned out their “difficult” sophomore record, ROOM ON FIRE {*7}, in 2003. Going down a storm with the press, The STROKES hadn’t suffered from second album syndrome, as tracks such as `Meet Me In The Bathroom’ and hit single `Reptilia’ beat the crap out of their critics with their tightly focused arrangements. A sell-out tour promptly followed, and many fans and touts (cough-NME-cough!) were sighing a breath of relief that these switched-on fellas weren’t just a flash in the pan.
Third album in and it was still difficult in STROKES-ville; FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF EARTH (2006) {*6} had critics bemoaning both unfulfilled promise and misjudged editing, while also taking Casablancas at his word over the ad nausea repetition of the line “I’ve got nothing to say” (on the slight nihilistic return of `Ask Me Anything’). Then there were the birthing pains: jettisoning producer Gordon Raphael and sessions he’d overseen, the band started over with David Kahne, the man who famously k.o.’d WILCO’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” for not being commercial enough (and whose CV included such garage-pop-rock heroes as The BANGLES, Tony Bennett and SUGAR RAY). Yet it all started so well; the opening fusillade of the upwardly mobile `You Only Live Once’, the good cop/bad cop thrash of `Juicebox’ (a UK Top 5 single) and the hi-toned intro of `Razor Blade’ justified the album’s UK No.1 (US Top 5) status, even if it ran out of puff before the finish line.
Time then to take stock and focus on other solo projects. First kid on the proverbial chopping block was ALBERT HAMMOND, JR., whose YOURS TO KEEP (2006) {*7} kept his fan club reasonably content. Augmented by rhythm section, Josh Lattanzi and Matt Romero (Julian Casablancas and SEAN LENNON played secondary guest roles), the record failed in its attempt to break the Top 100 when belatedly released in America by New Line Records the following March; addendums of GUIDED BY VOICES’ `Postal Blowfish’ and BUDDY HOLLY’s `Well.. All Right’ included. An album bursting with life and not that far removed from his main band (`In Transit’, `Everyone Gets A Star’ et al), one could hear bits of JOHN LENNON and BRIAN WILSON in the cool, formulaic alt-pop of `Cartoon Music For Superheroes’, `Bright Young Thing’ and the single, 101’. Ignoring advice to return to his day job, but doggedly sticking to his guns, HAMMOND spring-loaded a second set, COMO TE LLAMA? (2008) {*6}. Align with almost every other self-indulgent solo project, retro was the name of the game as prime cuts `The Boss Americana’, `Bargain Of A Century’, `Rocket’ and `GfC’, proved.
Apportioning a good deal of his Brazilian roots, Fabrizio Moretti’s side-project LITTLE JOY was next in the firing line. Pieced together in 2008, the sticksman, plus chums Rodrigo Amarante (of Los Hermanos) and L.A.-based female singer-songwriter BINKI SHAPIRO, stated their absorbing indie-pop intentions courtesy of eponymous set, LITTLE JOY (2008) {*7}. Surprisingly simple and sweet, the only STROKES-esque cut was `Keep Me In Mind’, as the trio swept up bits of bossa nova, lovers rock and sunshine-soul under one big melting pot of sounds; the infectious twee of `Don’t Watch Me Dancing’ (Binki, the star), `The Next Time Around’ and the reggae-styled `No One’s Better Sake’, were a good million miles away from Moretti’s main group.
NICKEL EYE was Fraiture’s punningly-titled solo/group project, augmented as it was by London-based dream-pop trio, SOUTH (i.e. musicians Jamie McDonald, Joel Cadbury and Brett Shaw). Helped, also, by guests REGINA SPEKTOR vs. the rector, Nic Zinner (of YEAH YEAH YEAHS), THE TIME OF THE ASSASSINS (2009) {*6}, was a mixed bag of all-sorts. The monotone, off-kilter, self-penned songs of Fraiture lay between FRANK BLACK and LEONARD COHEN-esque folk (there was a bookend cover of the latter’s `Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’; with wife Illy on backing) and one cod-reggae ditty, `Brandy Of The Damned’.
With only Valensi opting for session work rather than solo time-outs (although he did contribute to LITTLE JOY, and others DEVENDRA BANHART, SIA and REGINA SPEKTOR); he married former The Word presenter Amanda De Cadenet in 2006, vacation time extended for latecomer, JULIAN CASABLANCAS. PHRAZES FOR THE YOUNG (2009) {*7} was the only extracurricular Strokes project to sell in chart-registering quantities. An album of many colours, encompassing DAFT PUNK-like shapes (example `Left & Fright In The Dark’), new wave disco (`11th Dimension’) and Stetson alt-country (`4 Chords Of The Apocalypse’). Throw in some drones and loops in `Ludlow St.’, and Julian’s album probably deserved to come out on top.
Hints and rumours of The STROKES impending reunification were anticipated with the normal Chinese whispers until they actually headlined 2010’s Lollapalooza. Half a decade in hiatus, the half-hour and a bit ANGLES (2011) {*6} was the quintet’s power-pop phoenix from the ashes, but on many levels the transatlantic Top 3 album failed to deliver anything akin to their previous indie-to-stadium-rock-styled achievements. Sounding scarily like NIK KERSHAW mixing it with HOWARD JONES, opener `Machu Picchu’ was no great tourist attraction, while others such as `Two Kinds Of Happiness’ and `You’re So Right’ recalled XTC and RADIOHEAD respectively. For a band that revelled in retro, maybe the angular rhythms on this “comeback” stretched too far in too many directions. `Gratisfaction’ was like a medley of NICK LOWE’s `So It Goes’ verse and something from the BOZ SCAGGS songbook, while `Metabolism’ and `Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’ unearthed both “Vas Dis” (the guitar licks at least) and other classic, “The Girl From Ipanema”. Okay, times were tough to find something fresh, but to go forward five yearly steps and take twenty-to-thirty backwards, The STROKES were in need of some mild resuscitation.
Although utilising the same producer, Gus Oberg, COMEDOWN MACHINE (2013) {*6} suffered the backlash caused by their previous dip into party pop; lessons had not been learned on `One Way Trigger’, a paean (in the ass) to A-HA’s `Take On Me’. Stylish and stubbornly slick, The STROKES sparingly put their garage slippers back on with the IGGY POP-like `50/50’. In a case of stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one-before, Casablancas put on his big “mirror-ball” head for the squeaky-clean `Chances’, `Tap Out’, `Happy Ending’ and `Welcome To Japan’. Admit it lads, you just wanna “Move Like Jagger”.
Whether it was the first in another batch of moonlight excursions, JULIAN CASABLANCAS + THE VOIDZ’ TYRANNY (2014) {*7} was out there for the picking. Augmented by Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter and Amir Yaghmai (guitars), Jeff Kite (keyboards), Jake Bercovici (bass/synths) and Alex Carapetis (drums/percussion), the frontman pushed out the envelope on this largely punk-vs-potpourri record. An hour in length, including 11 minutes for the ELO-meets-RADIOHEAD-like `Human Sadness’, and 7 minutes for the tropical lunacy of `Father Electricity’, The Voidz were no Void-Oids or, in fact, five mild STROKES. Thrash punk on layers of either lo-fi or staccato rhythms bridge over the troubled tracks, a handful of which (`Dare I Care’, `Business Dog’, `Johan Von Bronx’ and `Where No Eagles Fly’) grow and grow with each listen.
Not counting his `AHJ’ EP of the fall 2013, the solo escapades of ALBERT HAMMOND JR had been awry for several years, until, that is, 2015’s MOMENTARY MASTERS {*7}. From the opening cut, `Born Slippy’ (not the UNDERWORLD opal), to the pop frenzy of `Side Boob’, the amiable Albert had sufficient songs and a pedigree to matter in the modern-day music scene. Springing quirky post-Britpop for the Yankee dollar touching on new wave, the musician searched his soul for `Razor’s Edge’, `Coming To Getcha’, `Losing Touch’ and `Caught By My Shadow’ – all very CHEAP TRICK meets ELO, while the catchiest tune on board was his dreamy cover of DYLAN’s `Don’t Think Twice’.
There had been one obviously glaring omission to the extracurricular flights of fancy that STROKES members had undertaken, and that was side-project work from the youngest of the quintet, Nick Valensi. Finally in his stride with CRX, another 5-piece that also comprised fellow guitarists/vocalists Richie Follin (of GUARDS) and Darian Zahedi, bassist Jon Safley (of The Reflections) and drummer Ralph Alexander (of The DOSE), Columbia Records were quick to pounce on the potential of such a neo-garage-rock supergroup.
Assigning the not-so inconsiderable talents of JOSH HOMME on production, the album NEW SKIN (2016) {*8} was certainly as close to the power-pop of The CARS and CHEAP TRICK, as anything by NV’s main band. Clocking in at just over half an hour, CRX weren’t exactly re-inventing the wheel, but gritty tracks like `Give It Up’, `On Edge’, `Walls’, `Monkey Machine’ and `Broken Bones’ stood head and proud shoulders over the pop-fuelled `Ways To Fake It’ and the reggae-tinged `Slow Down’.
Out of commission, The STROKES’ off-shoots continued to compensate devoted fans. March 2018 saw two albums; the first by ALBERT HAMMOND JR.; his fourth in all. FRANCIS TROUBLE {*7} was just what one would expect – a razor-sharp extension of his innermost thoughts. The title itself had its roots in a baby fingernail; one that belonged to Albert’s stillborn twin, Francis; and one that belatedly came out of his oblivious mother’s womb when he himself was born some months later (April 9, 1980, to be precise). Now taking positives from this near mortiferous episode, the guitarist romanticised a cartoon-ish “lost persona” that had re-birth in songs such as the raucous opening, `DVSL’, the ballad-esque `Muted Beatings’, the tender `Stop And Go’, the introspective `Tea For Two’ et al.
Meanwhile, two weeks down the line, Casablancas’ The VOIDZ – as they were now billed – duly unfettered VIRTUE {*7}, an hour-long sprawl of an album that indulged in an anything-goes motif. New wave electronica, prog-rock, metal, neo-psych, R&B et al, one could cherry-pick from `Pink Ocean’, `All Wordz Are Made Up’, `One Of The Ones’, `Leave It In My Dreams’, `Black Hole’, `QYURRYUS’, `Pyramid Of Bones’ and `We’re Where We Were’.
Valensi’s CRX subsequently reconvened in 2019 for a second synth/power-pop outing, PEEK {*6}, an album that probably went under the radar for anyone not aligned to the plethora of STROKES side-lines. Follin had earlier moved aside when he formed his own named outfit with his sister Madeline (from CULTS), and with a replacement found relatively quickly in keyboardist Brad Oberhofer, the 5-piece could get down to business vis-a-vis negotiating video time for `We’re All Alone’, `New Obsession’, `Get Close’ et al.
Jump-starting The STROKES when enlisting the not-too-inconsiderable help of producer Rick Rubin, Casablancas, Hammond Jr., Moretti, Valensi and Fraiture rolled up their sleeves for their skin-shedding sixth set, THE NEW ABNORMAL (2020) {*7}. Whether the transatlantic Top 10 record fitted into a Coronavirus-conscious New York – and beyond – that was debateable, though there were glossy grooves of grandeur and engaging electro-exuberance lodged between opener `The Adults Are Talking’ and anchor, `Ode To The Mets’. The latter seemed poignant to sporty Americans baying for a return to the norm and, unintentionally, prophetic pieces like `Not The Same Anymore’, `Why Are Sundays So Depressing’ and `Bad Decisions’, were indeed too close to call in these testy days of indie-rock miserabilsm.
© MC Strong 2002-2006/AS/MCS-GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Nov2016-Apr2020

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