Stereogum Presents… STROKED: A Tribute To Is This It
The Strokes‘ debut album Is This It was first released on 7/30/01. To help us celebrate this 10th Anniversary, we asked some of our favorite indie bands to cover each track. The resulting collection, STROKED: A Tribute To Is This It, is in the spirit of our previous free tribute albums for Radiohead’s OK Computer, R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, and Bjork’s Post.
Is This It was recorded in NYC at Transporterraum with Gordon Raphael. When it was finally released in the States in the Fall of 2001, a decade after Nevermind, it helped not only put contemporary New York City in the forefront of music lovers’ minds, it offered an easy reference for people to dig backwards into the Big Apple’s rock ‘n’ roll past. For certain younger fans, it was maybe the first time they carefully considered Television (the late ’70s), the Velvet Underground (mid ’60s to early ’70s), and other lesser known garage and rock and whatever bands that inhabited a dirtier, grubbier Manhattan. The title’s pure Richard Hell. The original sexy album cover a minimalist echo of New York Dolls (via Roxy Music). It’s no coincidence that 2001 NYC — eventually, especially Brooklyn — ended up being known for its post-punk revival. (See, for instance, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Black Dice, Vice Records’ No New York nodding collection Yes New York, etc.) Is This It was a history lesson, but one with enough new ideas to also offer a roadmap.
In a strange way, Is This It sounded like something entirely new and entirely familiar at the same time. That’s one secret to its appeal. That, and the simple head-nodding hooks on modern classics like “Last Nite,” “Someday,” and “Hard To Explain” are so immediate. It’s a clean, but scruffy collection. It’s honed and tight, but also just loose enough — loose mostly in the presentation. People watching MTV in ’01 won’t forget the first time they saw the way Julian Casablancas didn’t seem to give a shit in the “Last Nite” video. Or how the bands’ minds appeared elsewhere when they performed on Late Night Television. It’s a kind of charisma you can’t teach or practice, one that felt as natural as their messy hair.
The Strokes maybe never topped Is This It, but you can’t blame them for that. Part of the record’s appeal is also the youthfulness of it, something you can’t replicate even a year later. That said, they definitely found a way to bottle it on the album itself: If you listen to it now, 10 years later, it sounds as fresh (and vintage) as ever. Which is maybe why its sound continues to surface in 2011 among both shaggy rock groups, yeah, but also kids with keyboards in their bedrooms and folks wearing sunglasses behind their laptops.
Designed by Seldon Hunt
Here’s what each act had to say about its contribution and the Strokes influence on them in general:
Peter Bjorn & John – “Is This It”
The only time I have agreed with some of the many, many stupid music journalists in Sweden was when “The Strokes” appeared on a Swedish website about 10 years ago. On of the most stupid journalist said that this new band for New York was the rebirth of rock or something and when I for the first time listened to three of their tracks on this swedish web-page I almost wanted to hit myself in the head with the computer. It was kind of a new thing for me to listen to music on a computer machine and this was the very first time I remember getting goosebumbs from hearing music on such a thing. It´s a strong memory believe it or not and It felt like magic that something this good had been created maybe just some month ago and that I could hear it on my computer at work. The idiot journalist was right, this was amazing and for me it was almost like when I heard “Jump” with “Van Halen” for the first time back in 1984. When we recorded our cover of “Is This It” we didn’t want to do anything crazy or weird like turning the song into a acid jazz P-funk power ballad. We just wanted to play it as good as we could.
– John Eriksson
Chelsea Wolfe – “The Modern Age”
I didn’t know this song well before I was given it to cover, so I listened to it a few times in a row and then started just focusing on the words. This song has great lyrics. I decided to pretend it was an old folk song. When I recorded my cover I was really sick and had taken lots of heavy cough syrup. I sat down with my classical guitar and just played it out, then my bandmate Ben (Chisholm) and I added layers of vocals, drums and juno until it felt slow and heavy like the medicine.
– Chelsea Wolfe
Frankie Rose – “Soma”
To be honest this was the first time had ever actually sat down and listened to the strokes! Maybe that sounds crazy like I have been living in a bush or something, but true! The trick was how best to make the song my own. I decided slowing it down and taking out some of the garage elements might be interesting. Adding a synth was helpful. The harmonies keep the chorus moving forward like the original, and yet totally different. Take note, there is a little homage in the guitar at the end. Can you guess for whom?
– Frankie Rose
Real Estate – “Barely Legal”
Matt, Alex and I – as well as all of our friends – were pretty much obsessed with this band when we were 15. We formed a Strokes cover band and played at Cassie (Ramone)’s sweet 16. When Alex got his first electric guitar, he opted for the white Stratocaster like Albert Hammond Jr. He even had the red lightning bolt strap. The approach to doing this cover was to not make it sound like the original, pretty simple. However, these songs are all arranged so well already that it’s pretty hard to come up with something new. We did a half-time drum beat thing, and then the rest of it just kind of fell into place.
– Martin Courtney
Wise Blood – “Someday”
I was psyched and terrified to get “Someday.” I decided to try and stick with the way the song develops, which I think is 4 parts that progress, fall apart, then start over again. Everything else I sort of switched up, and I tailored the lyrics a tiny bit to better suit me.
– Chris Laufman
Austra – “Alone, Together”
This song was really hard for me to cover because in my opinion the greatest things about it are the performance and the production. It took a while, but ultimately I just made it sound like an Austra song, which is to be expected!
– Katie Stelmanis
the morning benders – “Last Night”
Back when Is This It was released everyone was going crazy over how much The Strokes sounded like VU and Television and Iggy Pop. But to me, there first single “Last Nite” always felt like a Beatles song. The way the rhythmic elements always stay out of the way of the vocal, that one note guitar line a la George Harrison, even Julian’s vocal has that combo of snotty grit and melody that reminds of Lennon. But beyond all that, the reason it really feels like a Beatles song is the structure. It’s classic early-Beatles Lennon, and an approach to pop structure that still hasn’t really been tapped into. There’s no clear verse or chorus, just one main hook and melody. The only other section is a short bridge, that really just acts as a kind of propeller for the main melody, giving it the momentum it needs to come back over and over and over again. That’s good pop! And of course the middle eight is replaced by a guitar solo because, well, they’re the Strokes. For our cover we turned that structure on its head. The sections still occur in the same order, but we have re-imagined them. The main “Last Nite” melody/lyric becomes a proper verse, and the section that used to be a short bridge becomes the proper chorus/hook. At the end everything intersects with each other and we have a melodic party. Pretty fun, right?
– Chris Chu
Owen Pallett – “Hard To Explain”
Is This It is one of my favourite records of all time. I like a band when they’re metronomic with zero dynamics, and they never play the chorus more than twice, and when the vocals are buried. It sounds like efficiency. I read a quote, once, from Regina Spektor, in reference to Is This It:
The thing that blew my mind first hearing the Strokes was that they were the closest I had heard rock come to classical. Their music is extraordinarily orderly and composed.
I post on several message boards — less these days, but still on occasion. Spektor’s statement, which made instant sense to me, was the source of lively online debate. Essentially, people disagreed with Spektor’s quote. What followed was a firestorm of criticism, and many things came into question, from Spektor’s familiarity with rock music to begin with, to the worth of “classical training” in the pop context.
A user named Nabisco posted this in Spektor’s defence:
So far there’s like one person on the thread who’s actually bothered to spend half a second thinking about what [Spektor] seems to mean. (…) As of the first couple albums, at least, there is something almost insanely orderly about the Strokes’ eighth notes, in a way that’s pretty much the opposite of the “raw sloppy rock” tag they once got. I seem to remember Tom Ewing saying it was no surprise to have a drum machine on “Hard To Explain,” since the band always played like they were machined and sequenced anyway. It makes sense that this would be what Spektor means when she says the band is “like Mozart”. (…) It would be nice if there were ever any pull on [this message board] to look at something with the expectation that maybe — just maybe — it will be useful for something better than eye-rolling.
When I was asked to cover “Hard To Explain,” I remembered Spektor’s comment and Nabisco’s response. I re-imagined the Strokes as a piano quintet, and had us all playing hard, fast and mechanical. I can’t sing it as well as Julian, but he’s a really good singer — I think he had might have had lessons — not that it matters.
– Owen Pallett
Heems – “New York City Cops”
Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Alberta Spruill, Timothy Stansbury, Abner Louima, Sean Bell, Ousmane Zongo, Randolph Evans, Anthony Baez, Clifford Glover, and Fermin Arzou were senselessly beaten or killed by the NYPD while unarmed.
– Himanshu Suri
Deradoorian – “Trying Your Luck”
I was psyched to have a different type of challenge within my daily writing routine. It was nice to have a project that could be viewed more objectively and focus more on what kind of sound I wanted it to have. I love the production of dub/reggae and thought I’d give my own interpretation of that for “Trying Your Luck.” It took a couple of tries to get on the right wave, but I feel it came together in the end. I usually don’t add environmental sounds to songs, or use that kind of instrumentation, so it was fun to put that all in there.
– Angel Deradoorian
Computer Magic – “Take It Or Leave It”
I grew up listening to Is This It in middle school and high school. I think everyone my age did. “Someday” was my ringtone for my old Nokia light up phone for at least three years. I love the Strokes, but I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t. “Take It Or Leave It” has a pretty level headed obvious message to it, it’s one of my favorites.
– Danielle Johnson
We wanted to thank Seldon Hunt for designing the cover, Le Chev (Michael Cheever) for mastering the collection, and all the bands who participated. Of course, a big thanks as well to the Strokes for creating Is This It.