The hype is right

One night with the Strokes might convert you, too.

THE STROKES, TURN ONS, LASHES

Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $10 9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 11

IF YOU'RE THE SORT who reads music magazines, you may already know that the Strokes are, among other things, the "next big thing" (Rolling Stone) and "the hippest band on the planet" (Q). Thus far, most of the fuss derives from The Modern Age (Rough Trade), a three-song import EP released in January 2001. The fact that they're young (20 to 22), scruffily handsome urbanites with cool names (Julian Casablancas, Fabrizio Moretti, Nikolai Fraiture, Nick Valensi, and Albert Hammond Jr.) hasn't hurt their prospects, but the amazing word-of-mouth about the 11-minute debut has been the real key to Strokes-mania. The suddenness—they've only been a band for a year and a half—and apparent ease of their rise has only stirred further attention. Naturally, a chorus of naysayers has quickly emerged: They are private school dandies with rich daddies, they rip off Lou Reed, they're major-label whores, etc.

A reflexive aversion to hype is surely a healthy thing these days, but I'll proudly admit that I'm buying it this time. I was fortunate enough to have heard The Modern Age before reading anything about them or hearing anything more than "I think you might like this."

I did like it—a lot. Its brevity made it all the more suited for obsessive repeat listens, and I'd play it four, five times in a row, marveling each time how they managed to make the standard guitar/drum/ bass arrangement—whose demise has been presumed as electronics become more pervasive in pop—sound so fresh again. They achieved the trick mainly by drawing so well on the past. Their basic sound is rooted in '60s mod power (think Who circa '66) and '70s punk and new wave chic (a more concise Television). Casablancas' vocals recall a young Iggy Pop's throaty rasp and evoke all the N.Y.C. swagger of vintage Reed. These influences aren't unusual, but the assured, hell-bent delivery certainly is.

All the bombast, however, never detracts from the fundamental catchiness of all three songs. The EP's centerpiece, "Last Nite," best illustrates the Strokes formula—barroom bravado with a tune you can snap your fingers to. After seeing their March show at the Crocodile, where they bristled with the same raw energy that defined The Modern Age, I was officially sold. Frontman Casablancas exuded confidence yet still displayed a charming awkwardness befitting the band's relative inexperience. One of the best things about the show was that most of the people in the audience were there to see the headlining Doves and had no idea who the Strokes were. After a few songs, you could see several people nodding to their friends with an implicit "these guys are pretty good." By the end of the set, their Seattle fan base had grown exponentially.

The process, apparently, is a common one. Before building the national following, the band established itself this past winter in its native New York with a weekly residency at the East Village's Mercury Lounge. After conquering New York, the same strategy was employed in Boston and Philadelphia—crowds of two dozen grew to sellouts in a matter of weeks. According to guitarist Valensi, "We've been making converts wherever we go. We're used to playing to crowds who don't know who we are."

For better or worse, those days are probably coming to an end. Their "Hard to Explain" single has already entered the charts in England, and Valensi reports that they are already starting to notice a growing percentage of the audience singing along during their stateside travels. "They're doing it even on songs that haven't been released here yet. They're downloading our stuff off of the Internet and learning the songs. It's crazy."

Things are sure to change more radically next month with the release of their first full-length album, Is This It (RCA Records). The record might not be the landmark album some have been predicting—I'll admit that it doesn't grab me the same way The Modern Age did, perhaps sacrificing too much of the tension that made the EP great in exchange for additional polish—but it's still one of the year's best rock albums. There are glorious hooks throughout, along with Casablancas' distinctive growl. Reworked versions of the three songs from the EP are included as well as instantly lovable tunes like "New York City Cops" and "Someday." At least six of its 11 tracks are candidates for a breakthrough hit, and considering to what lengths RCA had to go to win the bidding war, it's likely that the label will release several singles and an all-out media blitz.

Valensi says the band is happy with the album, but they won't be crushed if it doesn't make them megastars. These aren't guys with a cynical agenda. They're having a great time. "We're best friends on a long vacation. And we get to play music we love every night. I have nothing to complain about," says Valensi, who's proud to be on a major label. "I've been dreaming about this since I was 12 or 13, reading books about Nirvana." The comments attest to the band's youth and enthusiasm. They're not jaded yet, and they left me hoping that they wouldn't be anytime soon. You don't have to believe the hype, just give them a listen. As Valensi judiciously imparts, "Let the people decide."

pfontana@seattleweekly.com

 
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