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Is This...It? 

Why aren't the Strokes setting the world on fire?

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Somewhere along the way, The Strokes stopped getting stroked.

Don't get me wrong. They're still "famous," still appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone and Spin whenever those magazines need yet another inoculation of youthful vigor and fashion. Even I can name every member of the band, instrument played, the styles of clothing they prefer. I can tell you where the band met each other for the first time. I can tell you that they don't do a lot of interviews (a possible Loaf interview with singer Julian Casablancas -- a big deal according to his press folks, as he does "about two interviews every two years" -- fell through at the last second due to band rehearsals and an East Coast blizzard).

I can tell you it was with no real regret that I received the news, however. The only two nuggets of wisdom I've ever gleaned from a Strokes interview? Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. eats only breakfast foods or sushi for lunch, and that drinking to excess is a great deal more glamorous when you're young, rich and relatively handsome. Unfortunately, the closer you examine the band's music, the more you have to wonder: Is the band's measured aloofness due to an almost painful inability to deal with the pressures society puts on young romantics like themselves? Or is it because they have nothing to say?

This is a close-knit group, these Strokes. They put the "we" in ennui. They live together, play together, party together, and wake up the next day and do it all over again -- more often than not in New York City. In fact, they do most everything in New York City -- date actresses and models like Amanda De Cadenet and Drew Barrymore, drink nightly, and record their albums. New York City is their town, their comfort zone.

This extends to everything. When the group was recording their latest, Room on Fire, they axed producer and recording demigod Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Pavement) in favor of doing it themselves with longtime band pal (and producer of their first record, Is This It) Gordon Raphael. To fans that liked that debut, this one is going to sound something like the aural equivalent of comfort food -- consistent, reliable, and...the same. For those looking for a spicier platter, it's going to sound rather bland.

"I think it compares well purely in terms of quality, but it didn't do much to advance the "story' of the Strokes or to demonstrate significant or surprising growth," says Anthony DeCurtis, Executive Editor at Tracks magazine and a longtime rock scribe. "The people who liked the first one liked this one as well, for the most part, but it didn't represent a breakthrough. In real life, that's not so bad. For a buzz band, that's a problem."

It all depends on where you're located: the Apple or the orchard. In New York City, the boys are only slightly less popular than Rudy G. The world's biggest music and fashion magazines? Also located in New York. Coincidence?

Or is it something else, this lukewarm reception from the rest of the world? Is it a backlash toward guitar-rock? Or was the whole Return of Rock story line just a big hoax anyway, desperate major labels ready to snap up anyone with a "the" in their name because they thought the Strokes and White Stripes were the new Nirvana and Pearl Jam?

"It's perfectly possible for the Strokes to spin off a hit single (ala the White Stripes) that would make them a bigger band than they currently are," says DeCurtis. "But the Strokes are a kind of virtual house band for hipsters -- critics, media types, models, etc. -- who get all the references and respond to the style and attitude as much as the songs. That's fine, but when you start trying to translate column inches and photo spreads into sales, you run into problems.

"So far, part of the point of the Strokes -- and I think the band enjoys this -- is for people to feel good about themselves for knowing about and liking the Strokes. The sound is only instantly recognizable to the people who instantly recognize it, if you know what I mean. For the band to reach a larger audience, some of that would have to be lost. Whether that's good or bad, well, that's a hard question to answer."

Perhaps it's really a backlash against energy, against action -- or lack thereof. Room on Fire is all potential energy, a sort of pent-up nervousness that always seems ready to explode into movement but never really does. It's part of why one of the only songs on Fire worth repeated listens is the Cars-like shuffle "12:51." Clocking in at a brisk two minutes and twenty-five seconds, it's a refreshing brace of cold water in the midst of a record smoldering under its own perceived "weight."

If the author F. Scott Fitzgerald -- no fan of second acts himself -- were around today, he'd probably dig The Strokes. One senses that the band would find a lot to like in Mr. Fitzgerald, too, and especially his masterwork The Great Gatsby -- his love-hate relationship with women, the party life, and the elegantly wasted rich.

It's a cautionary story, however. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway returns to his home in West Egg late one night and thinks his house is on fire. The light is in fact from Jay Gatsby's house next door, where a party of epic proportions is being held.

The lesson? Light is never any guarantee of heat.

The Strokes will play the Grady Cole Center on March 13, along with special guests The Sounds. Tickets are $25, available by calling 704-522-6500.

Contact Tim Davis at Timothy.Davis@cln.com

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