Unlike many bands that release notable debut albums and then take years to deliver a follow-up, the Strokes got Room on Fire out as quickly as possible after their lengthy tour for Is This It. Good thing, too; the two years between their debut and this album were long enough for the expectations for -- and the backlash against -- a new Strokes album to reach formidable proportions. And the Strokes sound like they have a lot to prove on Room on Fire, not to their naysayers, but to themselves. On the surface, the album isn't drastically different than Is This It, but it's not predictable. Instead of delivering an album's worth of "Last Nite"s, "Someday"s, and "NYC Cop"s, Room on Fire expands on their debut's off-kilter and complex tracks, like "Is This It?" and "Hard to Explain." The album's first single, "12:51," signals the Strokes' intent: its whistling, synth-like guitars and handclaps are undeniably catchy, but at first, the song seems to be searching for a structure. Eventually, though, it becomes sneakily addictive -- it's a stealth pop song. Likewise, the album opens with "What Ever Happened?," on which Julian Casablancas snarls "I wanna be forgotten/And I don't wanna be reminded" -- not exactly the likeliest start to what should be a triumphant second album from one of the most celebrated rock bands of the 2000s. In many ways, Room on Fire is the Strokes' bid to be taken seriously, which may be why they began this album with producer Nigel Godrich before returning to Is This It producer Gordon Raphael. To his credit, Raphael gives the album its own sound: it's brighter and fuller than Is This It's low-rent production. Room on Fire also has a distinct attitude. Is This It sounded effortless, but it's evident that a great deal of effort was put into Room on Fire. Yet the album's most crafted moments are its most exciting: "Automatic Stop," a playful, poignant look back at a love triangle, lopes along to a reggae beat (and features the witty lyrics "So many fish there in the sea/I wanted her/He wanted me"). "Under Control," an awkwardly gorgeous homage to '60s soul, is possibly the best Strokes song yet. Several songs recapture some of Is This It's exuberance; not surprisingly, they're the ones that the band wrote while on tour. "You Talk Way Too Much" revs on one of their most Velvets-y riffs; "Meet Me in the Bathroom"'s Motown-like bassline and shimmery guitars add some style to its underlying sleaze. However, the Strokes are a different band than when they recorded Is This It, and Room on Fire's best songs acknowledge that. There's a weariness lingering around Room on Fire like stale smoke, especially on "The End Has No End," a loop of a song about a nagging breakup that repeats its seemingly nonsensical title in a surprisingly affecting way. "Reptilia," meanwhile, sounds like a long night of partying turned sour. "Please don't slow me down if I'm going too fast," Casablancas wails (most of Room on Fire's distortion comes from his vocals, which give the impression that he's gargled with turpentine and brushed his teeth with steel wool for the past two years). The motif of moving too fast and not minding it winds through Room on Fire, reflecting its svelte 33-minute running time as well as the swiftness of the Strokes' career. This compressed feel, the precision of the band's playing and arrangements, and the way every song comes to an abrupt stop sometimes make the album sound too closed-off. Room on Fire's best moments fight against this tendency and suggest that the Strokes are continuing to grow, perhaps beyond what their listeners want from them. Some may gripe that it's never as good as the first time, but Room on Fire shows that even after all that happened to the Strokes, they can still surprise.
Room on Fire Review
by Heather Phares