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Reluctant rock redeemers

Being hailed as saviors of a pop style has been a heavy load for the Strokes. Singer Julian Casablancas says they'd rather focus on their music instead of their 'mission.'

January 01, 2006|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

JULIAN CASABLANCAS is getting tired of people asking him where he's going.

And he doesn't mean Madrid, his destination this day as he navigates the Milan airport, in the middle of a hectic European jaunt of press sessions and club shows to advance Tuesday's release of the Strokes' third album, "First Impressions of Earth."

Rather, the singer-songwriter is frustrated with questions about his band's larger direction, its ambition and goals. Its mission.

Well, that's what you get when just a few years ago you were widely hailed as a savior of rock 'n' roll. At least, that's the way some positioned it when the Strokes arrived, with their mix of music (drawing on '60s-cool avatars the Velvet Underground and '70s and '80s heroes ranging from Tom Petty to Morrissey) and swagger (pure Manhattan party boys). It was a time ruled by rap-metal, and to many the Strokes, along with the White Stripes, heralded a new age of "purer" rock values.

All went according to plan with a debut album, 2001's "Is This It," selling a solid million in the U.S. and collecting international accolades. But a second album, 2003's "Room on Fire," stalled at half the sales, and even supporters started to question the band's will to lead while watching Coldplay do the hard work to achieve the status some wanted for the Strokes. To make matters worse, such other upstarts as Franz Ferdinand and the Killers walked through the commercial door the Strokes opened.

So now with the third album -- historically a make-or-break career mark -- it's hard not to ask: Are the Strokes going to step up and be a world-class band or not?

"I don't know," Casablancas, 27, says by cellphone. "I don't really think about it. In our minds, we feel like the record is good and we can sustain a career."

But that answer, he knows, isn't good enough for many he encounters, particularly in the press and the music business, which seem to hunger for a catchy (and perhaps simplistic) narrative with which to package the band.

"They want you to think about it -- 'Are you saving rock 'n' roll?' " he says. "Leave me alone. We're making music."

Charles Aaron, music editor of Spin magazine, sympathizes with Casablancas. After all, didn't the band do enough in the first place?

"You can only save rock one time," Aaron says. "They did their thing already, paved the way. Things like the Killers wouldn't be there if not for the Strokes. You can't really reclaim the moment where everything seems so fun and brilliantly tossed off."

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A big step, but which direction?

TO be fair, the Strokes didn't try to reclaim that moment. The second album more or less followed the same pattern of the first in a somewhat thin sound and casual approach, with a return to original producer Gordon Raphael after aborted sessions with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The new one, though, was crafted with more care under the detail-oriented watch of veteran producer David Kahne, whose long resume includes the Bangles, Sugar Ray and Paul McCartney.

"People's perception is it seems like a pretty big step, whether forward or backward," suggests Casablancas. "There's some kind of distance from the past records. We don't want to do the same thing. The second record musically was different, but the production was the same and people swept the music under the rug. Don't want to hear that again."

The evidence is clear from the first single, "Juicebox," which takes a surf-rooted riff through a decidedly harder approach almost recalling Nirvana or Velvet Revolver. Overall, the album moves between that edge and the more familiar Strokes shuffles, marked by choppy rhythms and Casablancas' muted vocals -- the latter this time thankfully free of the intentionally tinny effect that marked his singing on the first two.

This all comes at a time when the band has moved at least a little away from its wild youth, part of the group mystique since it formed in 1998 out of the boarding school friendships of Casablancas (whose father founded the Elite Model Management firm; the other members all came from upper-class backgrounds), guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti.

The singer quit drinking in 2003 and in February married the Strokes' assistant manager. Around the same time, Fraiture became a father. There's even a Hollywood romance in the back story: Moretti has long been dating actress Drew Barrymore. And furthering an environment of businesslike domesticity, the band built its own New York studio and focused seriously with Kahne.

But the question remains: Do these guys want to be huge -- and if so, are they willing to do the work to get there?

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