Some bands never stop trying to solve the first problem critics point out. 10 years ago, now, the Strokes were accused of not having enough ideas--of going back to the well for a follow-up, Room on Fire, almost exactly as streamlined and deadpan as their debut. The similarities were exaggerated, but there are places, even now, where it does sound more Is This It than Is This It--more streamlined, more deadpan.
Then they released First Impressions of Earth, and some critics pointed out that it was overstuffed, and undercooked, and a little too different from Is This It. Five years passed and they released Angles, which was, for another change, covered in retro synths and written collaboratively.
Now--two more years later--they've released "One Way Trigger," an overstuffed song with even more synths, pervasive falsetto, and another co-writing credit. So: Would we be better off if the Strokes had stayed the same, instead of trying willfully to be different? You should listen to it first:
Draw your own conclusions about whether it's a good or bad omen re: their next album; personally I'm in favor of falsetto, but a little ambivalent about falsetto-whispering. But it's a long way from Is This It, or even First Impressions--the matter-of-fast vocal take and the robotic drumming are mildly familiar, but the dueling guitars only make their appearance during the solo, with the second one buried apologetically in the back of the mix.
So The Strokes have successfully solved the problem critics had with Room on Fire. They could have continued to release albums filled with three minute songs and exotic guitar tones and scowling and I would have bought all of them, but they didn't--and in doing so they've released two albums and a single that those same critics have not really enjoyed all that much. (Their loss.)
Well, that's critics. If we knew as much about music as we hope to convince you we do, we'd be The Strokes. But enough bands find themselves in this situation to suggest the phenomenon might exist even when you're not the last decade's great rock hope.
So maybe it's not exclusively a matter of critics being dumb or Julian Casablancas being acutely sensitive to criticism. Maybe we're talking past each other.
Because after I thought about it for a while, post-"One Way Trigger," I couldn't come up with a single band that actually did make the same album over and over, at least not at the peak of their career. It's not always going from Please Please Me to Revolver, and it's not always successful, but every band that sticks around for more than an album or two changes with the times, or its age, or its own off-kilter obsessions.
If it seems like they don't, it's only because we forget about the unsuccessful moves. The Cars--the 80s' own slick, scowling rock saviors--sound samey enough on a greatest hits record, but that's only because there's always one song from the weird, twisting Panorama (below, with a guitar solo and a wardrobe that make me cry happy tears) and typically nothing from Door to Door, which should not really bother you at all.
When a fanbase or a blog says it's worried about how similar everything's sounding, I don't think it's the similarity that worries them. If Room on Fire were 20 songs long it wouldn't bother me that they all sounded like Room on Fire.
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I think what we're saying is: I know you guys are going to sound different eventually, and I can't figure out what that's going to sound like, and that worries me a little. The Strokes' first two albums were almost claustrophobically right-sounding; it was hard to hear where another minute or another instrument would fit in. But since all bands change, it was inevitable that they'd do it anyway.
Panorama was the Cars' third album--their First Impressions of Earth--and the public, for whatever reason, decided the thing they wanted from the Cars was not polymeter. (Their loss.) They came back with Shake It Up and Heartbreak City, and it became immediately apparent that the public (and the Cars) wanted lush, concise, still-pretty-weird pop songs.
The Strokes have tried a lot of things already, and a lot of them have worked, but the metallic maximalism of one follow-up and the 80s revival of the other never cohered fully with what made them The Strokes for us in the first place. They'll try something else on this new album--whether it's the right move or not--because that's all bands ever do.