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Different Strokes

Some listeners adore them, and some abhor them — but none can credibly deny that the Strokes have had a significant impact on this decade's popular-music scene. Is This It, the outfit's 2001 debut, arrived on a blast of hype powerful enough to blow open mainstream doors that had previously been closed to acts like theirs, and plenty of other return-to-rock outfits sneaked in behind them. The White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and many more owe these New Yorkers a debt of gratitude and maybe a chunk of their royalties.

Not that bassist Nikolai Fraiture feels he deserves unfettered access to Jack White's bank account. Mere seconds after he says "A lot of pioneers don't see the dollars they were promised," he insists that he isn't claiming Daniel Boone status for the Strokes, and he declines to take credit for boosting the career of anyone who followed in their wake. Moreover, he maintains that the band has never been motivated by profits — a credible assertion considering that the lineup contains children-of-privilege Julian Casablancas (his father founded the Elite Model agency) and Albert Hammond Jr. (whose papa wrote and crooned the '70s schlock epic "It Never Rains in Southern California"). When the players were negotiating with their label, RCA, Fraiture notes, "We definitely opted for less money in order to have creative freedom. We were offered much more money at other record companies but no creative freedom. That's why we passed."

The decision hardly turned him into a pauper. "I definitely have enough to live happily, without any complaints," he adds. "For me, that extra money would just be a bonus."

So would the opportunity for the Strokes to be judged solely on the basis of their music — but no such luck. Thanks largely to the baggage shouldered by Fraiture and company, the reactions to this year's First Impressions of Earth, the act's third disc, have been wildly diverse. The reviews fall into four general categories:

A. It's just like the band's first two CDs, and that's good.

B. It's just like the band's first two CDs, and that's bad.

C. It's nothing like the band's first two CDs, and that's good.

D. It's nothing like the band's first two CDs, and that's bad.

To complicate matters further, the tone of some notices implies that scribes are more interested in the Strokes' role as harbingers of a musical era than they are in the combo's continuing existence. A Spin critique ended with this: "First Impressions may not be the best Strokes album, but damn if it doesn't feel like the last." Translation: You've done all that you needed to do, so your presence is no longer required.

Views like this — along with other cultural clues — suggest that the Strokes, who were once rock's trendiest trendsetters, have broken their hipness. On a recent edition of the Today show, for example, cohost Katie Couric volunteered that she digs listening to the boys' tunes — a testimonial capable of convincing anyone on the cutting edge to get rid of their old Strokes discs, pronto. But if fashion-conscious listeners have moved on, Fraiture says loads of less fickle fans remain in the fold.

"We're playing a lot of places, and most of them are sold out," Fraiture points out. "To me, that's the best reason for me being in the band. It's still about the live performance and the music, and not so much what critics say and what they try to create.

"I really believe that, for the most part, the people who come to see us enjoy our music, just like we enjoy playing it. There's a kind of a relationship there. I don't think they're thinking, 'Oh, the historic significance of the band is this or that, and when I go see them, that's why.' I can't believe that's in the back of their minds."

The musicians' road to Strokedom was just as unlikely. Fraiture, vocalist/songwriter Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti (yeah, he's the one who dates Drew Barrymore) were raised in some of Manhattan's toniest neighborhoods and ran in many of the same circles. The band formed in 1998, when guitarist Hammond moved from Los Angeles to the Apple. Within two years, the quintet had established its sound — velvety vocals, danceably arty grooves, and an air of oh-so-fashionable ennui that entranced arbiters of taste in New York and beyond. Suddenly, the city's scene was hot for one of the first times since the safety-pin days of CBGB, and the Strokes received (and deserved) most of the credit.

Because of the excitement over the Strokes' rise, Is This It wound up being severely overpraised. The album is strongly derivative of previous New York musical icons, with a dash of early-'80s post-punk tossed in for good measure. Granted, tunes such as "The Modern Age" and "Alone, Together" held the promise of further development — but this potential wasn't realized on their sophomore effort, 2003's Room on Fire. That album employed the same basic template as its predecessor. The Strokes already seemed out of ideas.

Fraiture may not have liked the response to Room, but he understood that it needed to be taken into account prior to cutting the next Strokes disc. "We didn't want to do the third album in a similar production style to the first two," he says. That meant finding a new producer for Impressions, and they settled on David Kahne, an industry veteran who once slicked up the Bangles and collaborated more recently with (eesh) Sugar Ray and 311. Not that most of the Strokes knew it.

"Albert had met David, because a friend of his was working with him," Fraiture recalls. "And Albert very intelligently didn't tell us everyone David had worked with before, because we would have definitely had a prejudice going into the recording. He only said Sublime, I think, which is a band we all liked as kids." When the facts came out, Fraiture says, "Everything was already working, and we saw that David took it as a challenge to work with a variety of artists. It wasn't only the Bangles and 311. He'd done Paul McCartney and other cool stuff, and what he was doing with us sounded cool too."

The platter is certainly more radio-friendly than past Strokes offerings. The guitars on "You Only Live Once" are crushingly commercial, while "Juicebox" uses a bass line so much like the one in Weezer's "Hash Pipe" that it probably still has resin on it. Other songs sport comparatively complex arrangements: "Ask Me Anything," in which Casablancas tempts detractors with the line "I've got nothing to say," ditches the usual accouterments in favor of a synthesizer and cello. But beneath the studio frou-frou, the material doesn't depart from the combo's other efforts in a major way. By now, it's clear the Strokes are what they are, for better or worse.

The mixed critical feedback spurred by Impressions makes the band's current tour more critical than ever. But don't expect the performers to start expanding their ditties in concert settings. "We go through every single option before we feel, 'This is a song we should record,'" Fraiture says. "To change that would be defeating all those hours of work." Yet the band members claim to be reenergized as a result of changes in their personal lives; Casablancas, once among America's hardest partiers, stopped boozing and got married, while Fraiture has traded in hard liquor for the occasional beer.

Of course, doubts remain about the Strokes, as they always will. Despite persistent charges of dilettantism, however, Fraiture thinks their musical passion is easy to prove.

"To people who say we're not dedicated, I'd tell them we probably wouldn't have a third album if that was true," he declares. "We would have wasted all our money and done the typical VH1 Behind the Music rock thing and never been heard of again."

So Is This It? Don't bet on it.

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts

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