"With new bands I always listen to the third album," says the Kinks’ Ray Davies in the January issue of Mojo, regarding his curiosity about how Franz Ferdinand will follow up their sophomore effort. "That’s the real key to know what’s going to happen." Generally speaking, Davies is right. Assuming we’re talking about a band that had some sort of success with their first two albums, the third may signal a desire to stick with what works or the inability to grow artistically. Other times, it marks a departure or an attempt at maturation — think the Clash’s London Calling or Radiohead’s OK Computer. Neither scenario is necessarily negative or positive, but, as Davies points out, you often can get a good idea of where a band are headed by listening to their junior-year joint.
So what’s up with the third effort from the Strokes? Well, before we get to that, here’s a quick refresher course: for the most part, the songs on their 2001 debut, Is This It (RCA), were brilliantly straightforward and unadorned — two or three chords and a primitive but catchy-as-hell guitar lead or two, with singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas dousing the whole thing in buckets of nonchalant cool. The album just about lived up to the heaps of hype, and the band were deified in the media as the saviors of rock and roll. So when it came time to record a follow-up, the pressure was immense.
In 2003, they went into the studio with Is This It producer Gordon Raphael and an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it kind of attitude, attempting to avoid the so-called sophomore slump by playing it safe and recording basically the same album a second time. No doubt there were some great moments on Room on Fire (RCA), but they were better the first time we heard them. There was a handful of deviations from the Is This It formula — the blue-eyed soul of "Under Control," for one — but not enough to prevent critics and fans from bemoaning the fact that this was it all over again.
You could say the same thing about the first two albums by another group of New Yorkers, a band who — more so than oft-cited Strokes predecessors Television and the Velvet Underground — are truly the Big Apple brethren of the Strokes: the Ramones. Their sound was so disarmingly simple that at first people thought it was ironic performance art, but it quickly became the blueprint for a new genre. Their homonymous debut and its follow-up, Leave Home, sounded like stripped-down, sped-up Beach Boys — familiar, yet totally fresh. Both albums were terrific but remarkably alike. So it was with the Strokes. (Except, of course, that Casablancas’s vague lyrics about isolation and ennui have never been as memorable as, say, "Beat on the Brat" or "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.")