The Strokes’ “Is This It”

Album cover for The Strokes' "Is This It"

This week, I’ve been listening to The Strokes’ debut album “Is This It” from 2001. I kind of remember when this came out and I didn’t think much of it. In retrospect, I don’t know why I had no interest in The Strokes. Somewhere I must’ve picked up the wrong impression of them and wrote them off without actually hearing them. They are totally a type of band that I love and would’ve really been into in 2001 as well.

The very first day of my listening week, I pretty much fell in love immediately. Here’s a group of people the same age as me, their formative years took place during the grunge and britpop eras of the 90s. While certainly influenced by those styles, it’s clear that they particularly appreciate vintage New York City rock n roll. That’s stuff like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith. The Strokes manage to be inspired by these greats while still producing their own sincere rock n roll without pastiche. Lead singer and principal songwriter Julian Casablancas told producer Gordon Raphael that he wanted his voice to sound “like your favorite blue jeans.” To me, this indicates that the Strokes romanticized the cool spirit 70s American rock rather than simply seeking to emulate their heroes. That makes all the difference.

The Modern Age

The second track “The Modern Age” opens with floor toms played on the downbeat and slightly-overdriven guitar giving quick syncopated chord strums on the up-beat. These are joined by bass that thrums on the tonic, and another guitar steadily beating out chords. This over-driven constant rhythmic accompaniment sounds somewhat like a dirtier Velvet Underground. The vocalist then sings the opening lines, up against the mic and in our face without reverb and dirtied up by a cheap amplifier and speaker.

While we can hear some natural room, the instruments on this album are notably dry. There’s not much, if any, additional reverb added. They’ve also mixed the drums in a more traditional rock way; that is the way drums were mixed before disco encouraged produces to bring the percussion to the front. Part of the joy of this album is that it frequently feels more like a great recording of a band rehearsing in the basement than a studio album. The band sound loose and authentic, like a band more concerned with playing than with getting a perfect take.

The lyrics are somewhat flippant nonsense with a quality of rock poetry. There’s a clear feeling and emotion that comes across in the words and delivery, but the specifics are vague even with the disjointed apparent details. The use of rhyme comes and goes where convenient, almost more for the attitude than a devotion to structure. The lines pull from the language of rock n roll and teenage New York sidewalks, not from books of poetry and literature. What’s more important is the emotion and attitude.

Oh, in the sun, sun having fun
It’s in my blood
I just can’t help it
Don’t want you here right now
Let me go, oh let me go

Last Nite

I believe that “Last Nite” was the Strokes’ biggest hit in the United States. It’s certainly the song I already knew before this week. I love it. It’s both knowing and adolescent, which so much great rock n roll can be.Like the above song, the lyrics hint at some mixed emotions, romanticized angst and indecisive confusion. But they also come across so vaguely affected that they can be nonsense that suits the sounds more than communicates anything specific.

The song opens with a single fuzzy electric guitar playing an octave chord at a continuous 1/8 note pattern. OK, so technically, we can’t call it a chord if it’s only two notes, and that’s probably especially true when they are the same note an octave apart. Eh well. The drums and two more electric overdriven guitars join in, the drums are dry and centered, the two guitars are panned hard left and right. The drums play a basic rock pattern, with a kick drum fill at the end of every second measure. The two new guitars play the same pattern, but this time adding a sus4, higher up on the neck. A bass then joins playing the same tonic note, then up to the third, and back to the tonic. This all adds up to a mechanically basic rock n roll sound, somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Stereolab.

When the vocals of the first verse, the two guitar panned to the left begins playing a riff that reminds me of something. It’s somewhat like the Bo Diddley, but I think it may actually be something else. I can’t place it. The guitar on the right, starts playing choppy syncopated chords. These two rhythms interact in a rather angular way with each other; This exciting interplay creates a unique stereo effect and strong movement. The bass provides some melodic movement to the accompaniment.

Julian’s energetically disinterested vocals maintain focus throughout the track. The melodies are pretty simple, but the rhythm and delivery more than provide interest. Again, they too are a little fuzzy, just pushing the equipment to the breaking point without getting into unpleasantness. They have a delightfully dirty gritty sound. With the lyrics, the rhymes are again present, but not in a literary poetic way. More as a casual product of the musical style:

Last night she said
Oh baby I feel so down
Oh it turn me off
When I feel left out
So I, I turned around
Oh maybe I don’t care no more
I know this for sure
I’m walking out that door

The Doors’ “The Doors”

Album cover for The Doors' self-titled debut album

I’ve been listening to the Doors‘ 1967 self-titled debut album this week. My real introduction to the Doors came around 1992 from the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s biopic.  Around the same time, I saw a documentary about Andy Warhol that introduced me to Velvet Underground. Their song “Heroin” was also featured on the soundtrack.  As a high school freshman, I found great inspirations for creativity. Among those were Warhol and Morrison.

I soon read Jerry Hopkin‘s biography of Jim Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” It was years before I actually saw The Doors movie. Of course, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as good as Hopkin’s book. The teenage poetry scrawled in my notebooks became slightly less self-centered as I tried for more mystical universal themes. My dreams of going to film school were inspired by Jim Morrison, Stanley Kubrick, and William S. Burroughs. I didn’t really hear much of the Doors beyond what was featured on the soundtrack, but listened to it over and over again. It was years before I actually saw the movie and I didn’t like it as much as Hopkin’s book.  From the soundtrack, I was enamored with “Ghost Song“, “Riders on the Storm“, “Love Street“, “When the Music’s Over“, and especially “The End.” This was rock music tinged with otherworldly exoticism fronted by an intelligent poet who exuded a heady sense of danger.

I finally acquired a copy the Best of the Doors compilation album in my early 20s. At some point, I lost appreciation for Jim Morrison and the Doors and so managed to miss out on some tracks on this debut album.  I laugh to realize now how into them I was without having ever owned proper album.

“Soul Kitchen” is one of the most Doors sounding Doors songs. It features many stylistic elements found in their songs, as well as some of the better lyrics on this album. Morrison, considering himself a poet,often follows strict rhyme schemes. I can’t say the results are always good. I think their hit song “Light My Fire” has terrible lyrics, though Morrison’s not to blame here, as guitarist Robby Krieger wrote them.

The song opens with organ playing a riff that emphasizes the 1st, 2nd beats, and then dances with syncopation across the 3rd. It’s very similar to the organ in their later song “When the Music’s Over” which is also one of my favorites. The bassline bounces down and up from the 1st and 3rd beats of each measure. Drums join in, playing a standard 8 beat rock rhythm with guitar adding some bluesy rhythm riffs.

The Doors did not have a bass-player, but rather organist
Ray Manzarek played a bass synthesizer with his left-hand. This is often how pianists play, with the left-hand providing bass-lines and the right-hand play chords and/or melodies. What’s unique about Manzarek’s playing, though, is that the bass is a separate instruments and he often maintains a separate personality for each. He provides more soul-funk basslines, claiming Ray Charles as a big influence. However, the right-hand plays a variety of styles, often combining influences from blues, classical, jazz, and even middle-eastern music.

I could write a whole thing on just this song and the lyrics of most of the tracks. So, I will not do that, but I do want to point out one of my favorite verses, which is from “Soul Kitchen.”  The second verse. The four lines are two couplets of perfect rhymes, which in turn are slant rhymes with each other. The first line speaks of the fingers of the owner of the soul kitchen, describing their movements as if weaving minarets. Not a word frequently found in rock lyrics, minarets are skinny towers from which the call to prayers are made. Beautifully ornate Arabic lettering frequently covers these towers and their accompanying mosques. It’s possible that Morrison’s “secret alphabets” is both a reference Arabic calligraphy as well as suggestion that there is a covert shared conversation with the owner.

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget

This album closes with one of the Door’s more infamous track,s “The End.” The band also frequently ended concerts with the song. It begins as a goodbye to a lover with “This is the end, beautiful friend […] Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end. No safety or surprise, the end. I’ll never look into your eyes again.”

Then, from there, Morrison and the Doors take us on a mystical journey along the California highways. But the journey becomes increasingly sinister, like the boat ride in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  Until in a fairly similar way, the singer speaks for the listener, “Driver, where you taking us?” This takes us to the Oedipus section of the song. Morrison is known to have been involved in a school production of Oedipus Rex, and the Fruedian idea of Oedipus Rex was still widely discussed at the time. Apparently Morrison tied some additional ideas to the “Kill the father, fuck the mother.” He saw this as a metaphor for doing away what from the past was holding us back, and returning to embracing nature and the Earth. 

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he…
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he…
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
“Father?”
“Yes, son?”
“I want to kill you. Mother? I want to…”

While he does censor himself during this section, he chants “fuck” several times throughout the song otherwise like a rhythmic punctuation. It manages, however, to make this section so much more dark and sinister that he leaves out the verbs for bad things the killer does. Much the way good horror films like 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” lets the more disturbing imagery happen in the imagination rather than on the screen.

I’ll jump back now from the last song on the album to the third, “The Crystal Ship.” This beautiful song  of lost love allows Morrison’s voice to lean a little more towards his crooning. I know that he idolized Elvis Presley, but I learned this week that he also felt the same for Frank Sinatra. This track does combine some elements of both of those singer’s slowerly songs.

As with many albums of the time, the Doors’ self-titled album has hard-panned instruments either all left or all right. Thankfully, unlike the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul“, this keeps vocals in the center, and often another instruments like piano to join. This means there are three positions in the stereo field utilized. Unfortunately, the Doors seemed to have been recorded with greater isolation than the Beatles, so those instruments that are hard left or hard right feel extremely unnatural in headphones.

I’m glad to have spent a full week with this album, I’ve come to love the Doors again. Also, it was good to really hear all of these songs enough times to get to know them. Great stuff, the Doors.

The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”

The Velvet Underground and Nico album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” I first sought out the Velvet Underground when I was about 15, because they were managed by Andy Warhol who used them for his multimedia The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I had seen the documentary “Superstar” about Warhol on PBS, which immediately inspired my creativity and perspective on life. The compilation “The Best of The Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed” quickly became one of my most listened to cassettes. The far-out sound opened me up to possibilities I hadn’t even thought of at the time.

The beautiful chaos of the song “Heroin” blew my mind; I remember many times I would listen to the song loudly in headphones to become immersed in the driving rhythm and landscape of feedback. I love that the rhythm guitar and vocals keep going, hanging on to the train while the everything else flies off the tracks in a wild cacophony. This song really introduced me to the idea that a song can sonicly create an atmosphere that embodies what the lyrics describe. The sound is increasingly overwhelming and maddening, the chaos overpowers the structure. And yet, the opening of the song gives no impression of where it is headed. This is the 7th track, which originally opened side B. It may not be the most digestible song, but I think it is the most successful combination of elements that make this album unique. It has Lou Reed’s vocal and lyrics, basic rock structure, with electric violin, and crazy noise with experimentalism. And the last line of the song “And I guess, but I just don’t know” really speaks volumes, not just within the context of the song but also of the scene and time.

The album proper actually opens with “Sunday Morning”, which is possibly the most accessible song. It features viola and celesta, all played in a rather restrained manner. There’s also viola providing a lush bed for the other instruments to play in. It’s pretty and cool. The lyrics relay a sense of paranoia, but with the setting of an otherwise laid back Sunday morning.

In contrast, the next song “I’m Waiting For the Man” has probably the most “Velvet Underground” sound. Lou’s vocal delivery is stylistically cool, like a rock n roll beatnik. The rhythm section of drums, bass and piano play a constant repetitive rhythmic pattern. It’s incessant like a machine running in the background., but mixed low behind the forward vocals and lead guitar.

There’s other moments in the album that truly stand out. The feedbacked start of the guitar solo in “Run Run Run” is brilliant; unfortunately, it devolves into Dick Dale style picking seemingly leaving too much up to chance without enough happy accidents. And that’s what I feel is this album’s greatest source of weakness. Too often it feels like they just went at it, hoping it’ll turn out OK and it doesn’t. I love that attitude, which suits both the punk (before punk) rock and Warhol image, and when it works it really works. Still, I wish it didn’t create so many annoying bits. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is wonderful except for much of the guitar parts, which are what I would expect to hear from a guitarist trying out different ideas before they hit ‘record’.

In addition to the daring qualities of the music, Lou Reed’s lyrics are what make the album. He has a beat knack for the poetic, weaving story-telling elements through each song. Often, these are just vignettes or scenes of a larger story;  In some cases a collection of short vignettes to make up a larger story. He frequently tells stories through the voices of its characters, with “she said”‘s peppered throughout.  The singer’s experience of listening frames the story. Lou Reed was guilty of lines obviously written for the rhyme, which particularly stands out because his lyrics are so strong otherwise. Lou is also a prime example of a great vocalist whose not a strong singer; and rock n roll is the perfect medium for that talent.