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Two years ago, the Strokes dropped their debut Is This It: a bomb that was to send ripples of 70s-era distortion throughout the music industry, covering every rock band from SoCal to Soho with an inch-thick layer of fuzz. Rock, which had died for an unprecedented nineteenth time, was to be resurrected again—at least for a few more market cycles. But Is This It barely went gold and produced no more than one hit single. Meanwhile, the guitar-mashing Vines, energetic Hives and Detroit city rockers the White Stripes were garnering iconic status in the media but also failing to ignite the charts.
At the end of 2002, garage rock was hailed as the year’s musical revelation by every two-bit rag on the record store shelves. Entertainment Weekly selected the movement as one of its “Entertainers of the Year,” on a shortlist that also included Nia Vardalos and Kelly Clarkson. The magazine cheerfully proclaimed, “Rock was clawing its way up from underground to infiltrate the mainstream in a way not seen since grunge’s glory days.”
Every day, this infiltration became clearer and clearer: soon, Johnny Football Hero was seen walking down the hallway with The Mooney Suzuki blaring through his headphones, while Anorexic Annie was caught humming the Warlocks’ “Shake the Dope Out” at her locker. Though it was joyfully played repeatedly in the minds of rock journalists everywhere, this scenario never actually occurred. Not that MTV would have us know it—they put videos from each of the four representative garage bands into heavy rotation, letting TRL tweens get Stroked by someone other than R. Kelly on a daily basis.
This “revolution” was televised, but few people were actually watching. None of the breakout albums from the Big Four ever went platinum, nor did any of the five singles between them crack the Billboard Hot 100. Though it may seem unwise to equate significance with sales (the Velvet Underground and Nico model could naturally be evoked here), let’s face it: any major rock movement worth its salt sells a few records. Many magazines comparing the garage rock revival to the early 90’s grunge movement failed to mention that grunge kicked off with the #1 debut of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which easily sold three million copies to schoolyard bullies and their victims alike within a year’s time. The album set the tone for an entire subsequent decade of platinum-plated alternative radio, forcing the work of vastly untalented bands like Bush, Live and Creed into countless suburban households.
The audience for garage rock never truly extended beyond the hipster crowd. The girl next door might have thought Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist was kind of cute, but she sure as spit didn’t request “Main Offender” on Kiss 97-FM. A media creation from the beginning, the mystique of this movement was fueled by a rockcrit elite eager to package and brand a look and sound that they found collectively palatable. Caught up in a rock revival zeal, few stepped back to question: What exactly did these four bands and the various stragglers have in common? What vision did the Hives share with the White Stripes aside from duochrome fashion choices? If bare-bones rock was the uniting factor, where exactly did the regularly over-produced Vines fit in? In retrospect it is easy to see that the supposed movement lacked the kind of collective sensibility that made punk, reggae and grunge such hallmarks of the rock genre.
So what’s the future of “garage” rock? The past year has seen the White Stripes ascend to ubiquitous rock-god eminence, but most critics have praised their album Elephant outside the context of the movement. So for many of the revival’s diehards, the great white hope is Room On Fire, the Strokes’ sophomore effort. Crashing into stores on October 28, the disc arrives under the intense scrutiny of an industry still unsure about the genre’s staying power. A number-one debut could mean new life for the band and their leather-clad kin.
Unfortunately, it just ain’t gonna happen. The album, currently available through KaZaa, retreads awfully familiar territory. Identifying individual songs that harken to Is This It seems pointless; the albums are so indistinguishable they could very well have been created in the same recording session. “The Way It Is” and opening track “What Ever Happened” crackle with the raw passion of their debut Modern Age EP, while live favorites “Meet Me in the Bathroom” and “You Talk Way Too Much” provide more produced, laid-back fare. First single “12:51” is a rousing bit of Friday night nostalgia, Wavy Gravy chords slinking as lead singer Julian Casablancas relates, “We’d go out and get 40s, then we’d go to some party.” Yet, despite its infectious central hook, the single hasn’t caught on with audiences the way “Last Nite” did last year. It’s evident that Room On Fire will earn the band few fans, and certainly won’t convert any non-believers, a recipe for less than spectacular sales. The album’s inevitably underwhelming release should once again underscore this crucial point: rock really is dead. But for serious this time.
—Crimson Arts columnist Ben Chung can be reached at email@example.com.
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