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The Strokes
Room on Fire (RCA)

For lack of a better idea, our favorite NYC fan-boys are riding out their wave a little bit longer. By copping the biz’s common answer for following up a hit record, the Strokes exacted a near-clone of their debut, 2001’s Is This It, repackaging the goods with everything fans already went gaga over the first time.

Everything you remember about the Strokes is still true: angular guitar chimes punctuated by a stuttered, new wavey bass shuffle; unsyncopated rhythms rigidly jerking to and fro, not quite danceable but seemingly so; the coarse, baritone croon of singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas, who, for better or worse, still believes that a good hook provides enough to build an entire song around. Perceivable yet modest improvements include fuller, more condensed production, and more confident playing from guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi (the former also having managed to turn his guitar into the Cars’ keyboard on “12:51” and “The End Has No End”).

Room on Fire succeeds as a follow-up to what the Strokes are: a catchy, mid-talent band with a handful of good songs, given enough A&R push to slip into mainstream consciousness. But their claim for importance—musically and culturally—is ultimately what fails them, making Room on Fire their best possible effort given a tethered creative range.

No matter how deserving the Strokes view their popularity, this album suggests they want to be taken seriously, with lines like “I don’t want to waste your time” or “I want to be forgotten” to their no-joke, stone-sober attitude that persists throughout all 11 tracks. Their declared ambition to sound as if “the Velvet Underground were popular” (one of the most serious art bands in history) has not only confined their songwriting flexibility, but still reeks of the same greed for arty cool, riches and fame that’s plagued them since their inception. In sound and spirit, the Strokes are about as inventively punk rock as a CBGB’s T-shirt from the Gap.

The Strokes haven’t advanced any of rock’s forms, nor have they revived any essential element of it. They betray the spontaneity one hopes for with their apparent lack of ownership or confidence in their art. Casablancas and Is This It producer Gordon Raphael would reportedly spend weeks constructing their songs, scrupulously writing a song piece by piece as the band simultaneously recorded it. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with overattending one’s art, but in this case it’s clear that the goal wasn’t merely to make a good record, but to be resolute that every recorded moment perfectly resembled the Strokes “sound.” (That said, it’s beyond maddening that the Strokes frequently champion Guided by Voices as a band they’d like to end up like, given GBV’s hyperprolific outpouring from frontman Bob Pollard—along with his compulsion to release mostly all of it.)

Catchy and energetic, sure; but the Strokes will require a lot more growth before their next album if they are to convince us of any reason why they should still exist.

—John Suvannavejh

Kelis
Tasty (Arista)

Talk about getting no respect at home: The Cleveland Plain-Dealer recently referred to Kelis as a “British soul diva” whose new album, Tasty, was a first collaboration with hotter-than-hot producers the Neptunes.

Ouch. Kelis was born and raised in the Harlem, and her first two albums were produced by the duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Her 1999 debut, Kaleidoscope, yielded only a minor U.S. hit (“Caught out There,” with its ear-shattering, screamed refrain “I hate you so much right now!”), but was a European smash. Her follow-up, the more adventurous Wanderland—which included collaborations with an assortment of rappers and rockers—wasn’t even released stateside. Well, she’s back in a big way with Tasty, which is getting a major-label push. And only five of the songs are produced by the Neptunes.

Kelis stands out because she’s genuinely eclectic. The album starts with the reggae-inflected “Trick Me” (featuring the amusingly droll line “Freedom to you has always been/Whoever landed on your dick”), then lurches into the outer-space dance track “Milkshake.” Then there’s the early-Beastie Boys-sounding, rock-guitar propelled “Keep It Down,” and the sexually charged, slinky “In Public,” featuring her sig other, Nas, and a drum sample (or soundalike rhythm track) anyone alive in the ’80s would recognize. Tasty proves that Kelis is fine without the Neptunes, as there are great songs produced by Andre 3000 (the catchy, Prince-esque “Millionaire”), Raphael Saadiq, and Dallas Austin. (There’s even one tune, “Flashback,” thriftily recycled from Wanderland.) The approach is eclectic, but not scattershot or incoherent—it still comes out sounding like hiphop.

She also has the musical persona of someone who just doesn’t give a damn. Kelis doesn’t wallow in pain or joy; she exorcises emotions with fury and humor. With her unusual taste and unadorned vocal style, Kelis just might become an R&B “alt-diva.”

—Shawn Stone

Robert Wyatt
Cuckooland (Rykodisc)

Robert Wyatt is unmoved by pressures of the marketplace, creating music on his own terms and in his own time. He has been a gentle yet forceful presence ever since his band Soft Machine appeared with flourish and fanfare in the mid-’60s. His solo works, beginning with Rock Bottom in 1974, are some of the most singularly distinct sounds to have come out of the rock era.

Cuckooland is Wyatt’s first new album in six years. It’s full of the magic that’s been a hallmark of his writing and arranging sensibilities, combined with a voice that exudes a naturalism that makes each listener feel like they’re in his private company. As with his previous release, Shleep, this one was recorded at Phil Manzanera’s studio and calls upon some of his regular cohorts. Additionally, Wyatt plays three songs composed by Karen Mantler, who also appears, singing and playing harmonica. The album’s longest track, “Forest,” which was written by Wyatt and his wife Alfreda Benge, sounds too beautiful to have not been in existence for centuries. Embracing the poetics of human emotion, the song memorializes lost lives more effectively than any overt political song ever could.

—David Greenberger

The Darkness
Permission to Land (Atlantic)

The Darkness—Britain’s best export since Mad Cow Disease—have a unique way of employing irony without letting on that they know what they’re doing is ironic. However, it would be a shame to hastily tag these guys as a Spinal Tappian hair-metal takeoff, because their debut LP, Permission to Land, is one of the most visceral, fist-pumping rock-&-fucking-roll albums to hit our shores in years. The drums are cavernous and the guitars crank, with riffs lifted from such greats as AC/DC, Aerosmith and Thin Lizzy. These chaps have a very specific concept of what rock & roll is supposed to be, and they aspire to those lofty heights with every note they play and every outfit they wear. Singer-guitarist Justin Hawkins, in all his spandex-and leather-clad glory, is the definitive frontman, looking like a young Peter Frampton and sounding like the love child of Freddie Mercury and Bruce Dickinson (his oft-employed falsetto can melt paint). His lyrics run the gamut from vaguely medieval (“Black Shuck”) to outright nonsensical (“Love on the Rocks With No Ice”), covering such classic subject matter as jackin’ off and shootin’ up, schoolboy crushes and STDs. This is unsubtle, unapologetic, tongue-in-cheek, hand-in-trousers cock-rock that will make you emphatically throw the goats and bang your head—if you can control your laughter, that is.

—John Brodeur


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