What’s your take on Casablancas?

Work pants and trucker hats do not a hipster make.

by Keri Carlson

The indie kids – the ones who idolize Pavement, attend concerts with fewer than 100 people in the crowd and love their Converse high-tops – do not know quite what to make of The Strokes.

When the band’s 2001 “Modern Age” EP hit college radio, the hipsters embraced the group and ran to the nearest independent record store to get their hands on the then-import-only CD. The three songs on the EP, especially “Last Nite,” jangled to the raw beat of a packed and smoky apartment party in SoHo where the host spins Velvet Underground records at 45 rpm. The Strokes seemed like a band compiled of the best-looking tight T-shirt-wearing hip record store employees.

But as soon as their full-length “Is This It” came out in the United States, the indie backlash began.

News broke that The Strokes were not really a group of starving artists but – gasp – former prep-schoolers! Worst of all, it came out that singer Julian Casablancas’ father owns a modeling agency. It also did not help that prominent music magazines declared The Strokes practically the coolest band ever. But these magazines appeared to adore the group for where they hung out and what cocktails they sipped rather than anything to do with the actual music. And at the moment, The Strokes are too easily lost in a sea of two-word bands beginning with “The.”

For these reasons, indie kids started to raise their eyebrows and question the band’s motives. At first they identified with The Strokes’ tattered jeans and vintage T-shirts as part of the indie thrift store culture. But now those clothes seem like the $60 pair of pre-faded and ripped Express jeans and the mass produced CBGB shirts at Urban Outfitters.

The backlash goes beyond the elitist attitude of “only obscure artists can be cool.” It is a defense mechanism – a fighting instinct that keeps independent music from being exploited. It all comes down to the question: Are the Strokes just capitalizing on their indie image?

The new album, “Room On Fire,” helps answer this question. The Strokes are not an authentic vintage T-shirt. Nor are they a high-priced knock-off produced for 16-year-olds with credit cards. Rather, the band is a fabulous Dolce & Gabbana suit. Even the most devoted Ragstock shopper cannot help but to drool over a perfectly fitted designer pinstriped jacket. High fashion goes above banal mall clothing; it is art. The Strokes take classic messy garage rock and tailor the sound so it stylishly fits today’s culture.

“Room On Fire” opens with Casablancas straining his voice to proclaim “I want to be forgotten” on “What Ever Happened?” He then breaks down at the heart of the song and cries, “You don’t miss me, I know” as if he is one step ahead of indie skepticism, saying what critics were thinking before they could actually say it. In fact, “Room On Fire” sounds like its own backlash to The Strokes phenomenon. The band is more disjointed and sharp – at some points the guitars sound like a Casio keyboard. The music shifts from frantic and paranoid to a sleepy after-party lull. Casablancas’ vocals grow increasingly distant, as if he refuses to leave his apartment.

The album never finds Casablancas enjoying rock star status. Most of the songs deal with failure, frustration and loneliness. The last song concludes: “I Can’t Win.”

Do not think, though, that the album is just for whiny celebrities and former child stars complaining about the paparazzi. The Strokes struggle on “Room On Fire” to rise above flavor-of-the-month hype and prove their band is the real deal.

In the end you must believe The Strokes’ intentions to be true, because their music doesn’t lie.