Julian Casablancas, the 21-year-old man who fronts the hotly tipped New York City band the Strokes, has a knack for distilling his essence down to a line or two in really great songs full of the Velvet Underground's primeval four-four thud, Television's wiry guitar chatter and his own gloriously defiant self-regard. "Work hard and say it's easy," he sneers on "The Modern Age," the irresistible A-side of the band's extraordinary debut single. Meaning? That conflating everything NYC rock and roll has signified in the past three decades--primeval four-four thud, wiry guitar chatter, gloriously defiant self-regard--is a dirty job, but not anyone can do it.
By the sound of their brilliantly effortless-sounding art-/garage-rock, that's the Zen koan the Strokes are chasing down Manhattan's most glamourously seedy streets. It isn't supposed to work: This kind of scruffy, four-, maybe five-chord rock, and especially the attitude it radiates, is always bubbling under (and occasionally over) somewhere in New York--remember Jonathan Fire*Eater? But the five guys in the Strokes, all private-school alums from tony neighborhoods where scruffy is a quirk, sound like they were born to do it. "The Modern Age" features Casablancas swaggering all over everybody, threatening to take down the place if guitarist Nick Valensi doesn't rip out another killer power chord from nowhere (which he does, and which Casablancas does anyway). "Last Nite" is even better, with Valensi taking a wrong turn down a drunken Tin Pan Alley, drummer Fabrizio Moretti bashing away at his Playskool trap set and Casablancas bellowing like Jim Morrison if he'd ever kept his shirt on. They close out the disc with "Barely Legal," and though it barely misses being too long by a verse, it makes short work of the space between the Psychedelic Furs and the Stooges. In a good way. Three songs aren't much, but these three are.
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Around the corner, the Walkmen are trying to write a couple of their own. A few of them have tried before--remember Jonathan Fire*Eater? Walter Martin, Paul Maroon and Matt Barrick, the Fire*Eaters no one cared about because of Stewart Lupton, the 21-year-old man who fronted that hotly tipped New York City band, are still convinced the not-as-effortless-sounding art-/garage-rock they made last time around's good to go. Their self-titled debut EP shows they're at least half right: The guitars sizzle like grimy steam, the drums do the bumpy-subway thing, the keys provide appropriate ambience. But as with Jonathan Fire*Eater, the four cuts here are more extended vamps than songs, indicating but not reacting to their considerable milieu. In New York that may be enough--doing songs costs precious rehearsal-space hours--but the Walkmen's buddies in the Strokes suggest it's still a train worth chasing.