Room on Fire
Rarely has a band been greeted with such adulation and then suffered such an immediate backlash as the Strokes. Their debut, Is This It, revealed a competent band with catchy songwriting and a full-blown sound evolved from the Velvets, Television, and the great New York bands of the late '70s. Hundreds of similar bands have come and gone over the years, but the Strokes happened to have family money and connections, so when they brought the classic sound to MTV, some sour-grapes factions emerged. But should it matter? The Beastie Boys started off connected too, and no one seems to be disputing their greatness.
The truth is, the Strokes are neither as good nor as bad as the partisans would have you believe. Their new album, Room on Fire, isn't bad, per se, it's just mediocre. There are some fun moments, but it is never transcendent and it is frequently boring. The band sounds timid, hiding beneath the same jangly production that served them pretty well on Is This It. When they finally rock out on the 10th track, "The End Has No End," it's too little too late. Simultaneously frantic and distracted, this is the sound of a group more afraid of failure than reaching for success.
Their playbook has not changed: They are still plundering CBGB's set lists and Martha Quinn play lists. When they allow a little reggae to infect "Automatic Stop," they're not the Clash channeling Junior Murvin -- they're the Strokes channeling Blondie channeling the Paragons. "The End Has No End"'s furtive foray into the political ("It's not the secrets of the government that's keeping you dumb/It's the other way around") demonstrates that if we're going to have the inevitable '80s revival, we need less Cars and more Dead Kennedys. The best song on the album is the boozily wistful "Under Control" because the band sounds relaxed and vocalist John Casablancas is finally able to get out of his own way and just enjoy singing for a minute.
I'm old-fashioned. I think everybody deserves to have their music evaluated not on the basis of who they are, how they dress, or whom they know, but how they sound. I made a conscious effort to divorce Room on Fire's songs from the considerable baggage attached to the Strokes' name. But beyond baggage, I can't really name anything the Strokes bring to the table. -- Chris McCoy
Spirit in Stone
In spite of the top-quality chronic available on the Pacific coast and the never-ending thuggity exploits of the Portland Trailblazers (the only NBA team I'm aware of whose members have a high-school-style behavior contract with the front office), Oregon will probably never be associated with rap music in any form, much less the smart, soul-searching kind that the Lifesavas craft. Yet here they come anyway, three Portland rappers who get over on the strength of righteous paranoia about living in the here and now, clear-eyed frustration about race and class, and a lumpy, thumpy groove that is equal parts dub and nursery rhyme.
Like many Quannum Projects artists, the Lifesavas have more in common with folk singers than Nelly or 50 Cent. Songs like "What If It's True?" and "Resist" poke and prod about homelessness and dissent, while pointed soundbites about skin color and struggle give the witty wordplay a nice saltwater sting. Noncommercial anger is everywhere too; one song asserts "Even your black friends can't change the fact that you're racist." Whether they are calling out U.S.-Saudi Arabian relations or somehow turning the phrase "Humanity's lost their minds" into hummable doo-wop, the Lifesavas prove that they have killer instincts for something beyond a fat contract.
Which isn't to say they don't rock a party or dream of success. In the personal/political parable-with-beats that is "Hellohihey," lyricist Versutyl fields calls from aspiring rappers, sycophants, and blowhards until he realizes that all the voices badgering him are coming from his own mind. "That kid was our past and that friend could be our future," says Vers to himself, and as he tries to shut his overdubbed protests out and finish the song, the same smooth chorus drowns out any doubts before the fade-out.
So Damn Happy
Loudon Wainwright III
Father of wunderkind Rufus Wainwright (he of the operatic pipes), Loudon Wainwright has done the inevitable live record for his new label, Sanctuary. It's mostly a recap of his '90s material and, thank God, he doesn't do his lone hit record, "Dead Skunk," which charted way back in 1972. Apparently, Wainwright hates performing that tune as much as Van Morrison loathes singing "Brown Eyed Girl" live.
So what, if anything, makes this album different from, say, an installment of WEVL's Acoustic CafÇ, where crusty old (and young) singer-songwriters recap their back catalog to desultory applause from a well-behaved audience? Well, two things separate Wainwright from the faceless juggernaut of verbose, whiny pseudo-folkies who abound on the aforementioned syndicated radio program.
First, he is an energetic and funny live performer. He'll do schtick if necessary and is not reluctant to actually entertain an audience. He's self-deflating in a very likable way. Second, his material strikes a nice balance between intelligent and accessible. Wainwright writes songs that can be understood by your average Joe Schmo. For him, songwriting is a craft, not an elitist art, and that makes this live album a pleasure to hear. He also receives instrumental help from the likes of Richard Thompson and Van Dyke Parks. Not a bad backup band for a guy with an acoustic guitar and a bunch of original songs. --Ross Johnson