2001 / Music

Review: The Strokes, New Order Resuscitate New Wave

Dance-Music Innovators Reemerge As Punkish Alter Ego

Post-punk vets New Order return after a lengthy hiatus and New Wave newbies, the Strokes, present their major-label debut. But is this trip down memory lane worth it?

Read The Reviews: The Strokes | New Order

When the term “New Wave” first came into usage in the early ’80s, it was the record business’ attempt to re-christen punk rock. They used New Wave to break with punk’s abrasive image and make it a safer commodity.

Dance-pop innovators New Order are, through no fault of their own, the perfect group for what the record industry had in mind. In 1981, the band set out to follow their muse, shed their punk legacy and fused synthesizers and dance rhythms with rock’n’roll.

Two decades later, New Order has released a new album that has the quartet returning to their punk beginnings.

At the same time and an ocean away, the most hyped rock band in years, the Strokes, are touted as the outfit that will save rock’n’roll with their own take at New Wave.

The Strokes “Is This It”

At first, it’s hard to take the Strokes seriously. Despite all the hype about these five kids being the long-awaited messiahs of rock — the reincarnation of Television or the latter-day Velvet Underground — it almost seems a bit contrived how this New York band looks so perfectly like a New York band.

Photo: RCA Records

Photo: RCA Records

Maybe boy-band guru Lou Pearlman (the man who handpicked the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync) wants to hedge his bets and has secretly built a rock group of cute, punkish hipsters and hired the guys from Blondie to give them fashion pointers.

Conspiracy theories aside, the Strokes’ major-label debut, “Is This It,” is exceptional. The album is full of boozy, twisted love songs disguised as whirling, but mathematical New Wave. Their no-frills, straight-ahead approach is a combination that given the current state of pop music, is both refreshing and yet not quite fresh.

The Strokes’ music relies heavily on their lean-sounding, twin guitars, which play disjointed patterns that interlock to form a driving, locomotive rhythm. Their sound is relentless but never overpowering. Although thoroughly well-constructed, songs like “The Modern Age” or “Barely Legal” exude a detached desperation that by the songs’ conclusion, collapses into a frenzy.

The group’s unsung hero is bassist Nikolai Fraiture, whose shape-shifting basslines take turns supporting the musical freight train and unleashing piercing counter riffs (example: the album’s title track) that bubble up to the surface.

Free from all the music’s catholic restraints, singer Julian Casablancas’ pinched-nose vocals carelessly glide over the guitarwork, obeying their own rhythm. The lyrics are crawling with characters expressing feelings of dissatisfaction, and his voice alternates between a rough croon (like that of a Tony Bennett-wannabe) to a punk-rock yelp.

Sadly, the album is missing “New York City Cops.” The song is a slice of snarling, caustic pop that takes aim at New York’s Finest and is an electrifying part of the group’s live set. The track was pulled from the American release out of respect for the Sept. 11 attacks, but is available on import versions.

It would be best to look at “Is This It” as a terrific term paper from a bunch of dedicated students. (In a recent interview with Shout magazine, Fraiture said that the album represents the band’s journey through musical puberty. “I feel we’re now adolescents,” he said.)

This album and the band’s image is proof that they’ve carefully studied the New York bands in whose footsteps they follow. But if the Strokes are to be rock’s saviors, they need to graduate to the level of making music that rivals that of their heroes, instead of just deftly emulating them.

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 New Order “Get Ready”

To skew a cliché, New Order have always marched to the beat of their own sampler.

Photo: London Records

Photo: London Records

In the early ’80s when New Order was formed from the ashes of goth godfathers Joy Division, the group dropped the pretense that they had to use their assigned instruments. They began crafting groundbreaking singles that melded elements of dance music, Kraftwerk’s avant-electronica and early hip-hop. Their wavering keyboard-based melodies and programmed beats were popular with critics and dance club DJs, and the band became more famous and enjoyed greater commercial success than Joy Division ever achieved.

For most of the last decade, however, the group was missing-in-action. After delivering 1993’s “Republic,” New Order fragmented, reportedly due to inter-band turmoil and financial troubles.

A handful of solo projects later, New Order is back with “Get Ready.” But the group is now New Order in name only. The band really sounds like Joy Division, version 2.0.

Although the band is still without the services of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, whose suicide caused the group’s demise in the first place, “Get Ready” shows them returning to rock-band mode and resurrecting many of their patented sounds that spawned the goth subculture and acts like U2, Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails.

On the album’s first track, “Crystal,” the sound of bassist Peter Hook plucking those trademark, higher-register basslines that anchored Joy Division classics like “Isolation” or “She’s Lost Control” came like a shot across the bow.

While most of the tracks on “Republic” were an imprecise and unexciting combination of rock and dance music, the new songs are focused on pulsating rock grooves (and live drumming). The band is still harnessing the atmospheric swirls of sound and electronic effects that dominated on older albums, but these aspects are now pushed to the background in favor of stronger interplay between the bass and guitar.

Case in point is the lush “Turn My Way,” which features some excellent vocal dueling between former Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan and New Order singer Bernard Sumner. The song should be nominated as one of the best guest appearances of the year, if such an award was handed out. Corgan toured with the band as a guest guitarist last summer and his sensual voice effortlessly supports Sumner’s, finding a familiar home amid the song’s fuzzy, melodic guitars.

You can blame New Order’s attempts to re-mine their legacy on the mixed reception that “Republic” elicited or the work the band members had done in assembling the recent Joy Division box set. But “Get Ready” demonstrates that even though New Order has shifted direction, they still incorporate the dance influences that inspired their early ’80s singles.

They’ve also lightened up a bit. What Joy Division album would end with the cheery refrain, “Good times (are) around the corner”?

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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