Is This It
A bunch of New York City guys in their early 20s who have been on the cover of basically every British music magazine before their debut album was even released, the Strokes arrive with an almost deafening buzz. But, to flip the script on another great NYC act, Public Enemy, this time you can believe the hype.
The Strokes could be the result of some freak 1977 accident, a mix-up on the subway perhaps, as the city's two best bands -- the arty, mythic Television and the regular-Joe punks the Ramones -- head off to different gigs and somehow get their genetic codes crossed. The Strokes are what Television might have sounded like if they were a party band bashing out three-minute pop and garage-rock nuggets.
The 35-minute Is This It bops along at a relentless, agitated pace. The Strokes may evoke every great subcultural New York band of the last 35 years -- the Velvet Underground, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Jim Carroll Band, and on and on -- but what makes the band so thrilling is that they honor this tradition while also being more accessible than any of their forebears. The band takes these arty tropes back to the simplest and earliest rock-and-roll verities with music that's sweaty, rhythmic, and loaded with frantic joy.
Is This It is driven by the dual guitar attack of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. -- brittle, sugary, interlocking rhythm parts that occasionally burst into explosive solos. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture makes like a garage-rock James Jamerson, nailing the songs in place with big Motown-syle bass lines. And, as bands such as R.E.M. and Sonic Youth have proven, if you're gonna be an art band it helps to have a drummer who knows his way around a good, old-fashioned rock-and-roll backbeat, and stick-man Fabrizio Moretti more than fits the bill, giving the music a locomotive undercurrent that even pushes the rare "ballad" to a frenzied pace. On top of all this is singer Julian Casablancas, whose dramatic, confrontational vocals are steeped in the monotone humor of Lou Reed and the hopped-up aggression of Richard Hell. On "The Modern Age" he sounds like he's singing through an intercom -- a wild, distorted whoop and stutter over a tense "Sister Ray" stomp.
Lyrically, this is simple stuff -- New York City Boys pursuing New York City Girls. But this band imbues twentysomething date culture and general life confusion with mystery, allure, and desperate romance. "Life seems unreal/Can we go back to your place?," Casablancas asks in a typically sardonic pick-up line. On "Barely Legal," the band builds an unbearable tension, Casablancas slicing through it with a conflicted diatribe against one of the record's many objects of obsession: "I just want to turn you down/I just want to turn you around/You ain't never had nothin' that I wanted/But I want it all and I just can't figure out/Nothing."
It's astounding in this day and age that a band could record a debut album for a major label that sounds this raw and free. Unless there's something I've missed, the Strokes are the best new American band since Sleater-Kinney. -- Chris Herrington
Trash and Burn
On their 13th full-length release, Dead Moon show absolutely no signs of um waning. Composed of the husband-and-wife team Fred and Toody Cole and drummer Andrew Loomis, they are the musical equivalent of TV's Hart to Hart -- a frisky crime-fighting couple with Andrew as the lovably gruff third wheel. Fred, the principal songwriter, has been making music consistently since 1964 in such bands as the Weeds, the Lollipop Shoppe (scoring with the classic 1968 Nugget "You Must Be a Witch"), the Rats, and, since 1987, Dead Moon.
Dead Moon offer a glimmer of hope that the hard-travelin' boozy rock-and-roll lifestyle and the cozy path of stable domesticity are not mutually exclusive. In the past I have used the term "riot grrranny" to deride the soccer-mom poetry-slam style of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. Toody Cole, an honest-to-God grandmother, shows that petty jab to be an admirable prospect.
Dead Moon so purely exemplify rock music that it seems dishonest to use the term on so many other Milquetoast hacks and tin-eared tunesmiths. The band's style is definitely unrefined and jagged, but ultimately it is refreshingly adjective-free rock-and-roll -- no post, emo, nü metal, grunge, or even garage is needed. Fred Cole's deliciously mournful caterwaul might take a while to grow on the ears of the finicky, but the overall energy and integrity are impossible to deny. The songs on their new release are as strong as any in their back catalog. The obvious emotion between the band members is palpable on such couples-only crunchers as "The Way It Is" and "These Times With You." The meaty hooks of the anthems "40 Miles of Bad Road" and "Never Again" are so profound and majestic that you'll swear they are covers of forgotten AOR classics.
Along with Detroit's White Stripes and Japan's King Brothers, Dead Moon are among an elite of high-energy live acts playing in the world today. At the beginning of each show, they light a candle set in the mouth of a Jack Daniel's bottle. They rock as they live, full-bore ahead as long as the light burns. In the words of another elder statesman of rock, to whom Fred's wailing is often compared, that option is always better than fading away.
-- David Dunlap
Dead Moon will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Monday, October 1st, with the Reigning Sound.
Lonnie Johnson: The Unsung Blues Legend
(Blues Magnet Records)
Singer/guitarist Lonnie Johnson was not your typical bluesman. In the '20s, he helped to develop a single-string lead style for the guitar that was opposed to the gruffer Delta approach. B.B. King, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and Django Reinhardt all name-checked him as an influence on their varying guitar styles. Johnson was equally at home with jazz and was unashamed to sing corny standards of the day when it suited him. Neither the archetypal drifting blues guitarist nor a grinning minstrel holdover from the days of vaudeville, New Orleans native Lonnie Johnson was a fluid guitarist and a smooth singer with a deep emotional range who never quite got his due before his death in 1970.
His friend and benefactor Bernie Strassberg made a reel-to-reel tape recording of Johnson performing at his Forest Hills, New York, home in 1965 in front of a small but enthusiastic gathering of family and friends. The recording was done on a primitive Wollensak machine and was never intended for release. What was a living-room vanity session done 35 years ago now sounds very affecting and fits right in with the penchant for casual lo-fi recording made popular in recent times. The performances are very relaxed (you can even hear one of Strassberg's children talking on the tape) and the sound quality is not crystal-clear. But Johnson's undiminished talents as a song interpreter and guitarist (although he does overuse a signature guitar run made famous on his 1948 recording of "Tomorrow Night") are manifest on this recording. He tries everything from "September Song" to "Danny Boy" (a guitar solo!) to "Summertime" to Sinatra's "This Love of Mine." Lonnie Johnson aimed to be an entertainer as well as a blues singer and succeeded admirably at both. And he was never ashamed of being the former as well as the latter. -- Ross Johnson
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at email@example.com.