Album: The Strokes

Room on Fire, Rough Trade
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps the most welcome aspect of Room on Fire is that it can't simply be dismissed as just a New York white-boy-rock karaoke album, which couldn't be said with confidence about its overrated predecessor. The too-obvious (and too constricted) influences discernible on The Strokes' debut have been smoothed and moulded here into something more uniquely theirs, while the comparatively tight focus of Julian Casablancas's lyrical concerns confirms the initial impression that this album is a more homogenous offering than Is This It.

It's an album about ending things and starting things, with the bitterness of break-up cauterised by the thrill of starting something new, of moving swiftly on. Time and again in songs like "Between Love & Hate" and "Automatic Stop", Casablancas essays his heartless-loner schtick, brusquely dismissing one emotional encumbrance after another with kiss-off lines like "I never needed anybody" and "I'm not your friend, I never was". By track nine, "The Way It Is", he's slipped unapologetically into sheer revulsion: "It's not your fault/ That's the way it is/ I'm sick of you/ And that's the way it is". There's something almost psychopathic in his recurrent refusal to acknowledge emotional attachment, and in the casual, offhand way in which he rejects partners, apparently unconcerned about any hurt he may cause. Indeed, in "Automatic Stop", it doesn't even seem to be a case of falling out of love, so much as falling out of curiosity.

Such connections as Casablancas makes in these songs are invariably excused as libidinal accidents between "two friends in lust", hormonal slips over which he has no control. Hence, perhaps, the complementary tone of urgent forward motion, with constant references to speed, in lines like "I was a train moving too fast" and "Please don't slow me down if I'm going too fast". It's as if he's so eager to get on to the next thing that any stable relationship just seems like slipping backwards. "Our lives are changing lanes/ You ran me off the road," he may claim in "Reptilia", but it's obviously not him who's being left behind.

Mercifully, The Strokes have avoided the usual temptations associated with the Difficult Second Album, keeping their sound thin and taut and unvarnished, even on the brittle new-wave pop of the single "12.51". Elsewhere, the methodical thrumming of guitars remains resolutely funk-free, embellished only with the occasional spindly guitar break, such as the piercing, Slash-style thread of sustain that weaves through "The End Has No End". For most of the album's 33 minutes, it works well enough. Sadly, though, the band's laboured manner is singularly ill-suited to the understated soul of "Under Control" - a shame, as it is the most promising new direction in Casablancas' songbook, the only time he really ventures beyond the band's New York environs.