The rock’n’roll dreams of 2003 are alive in this month’s record release calendar. Yeah Yeah Yeahs leader Karen O released her debut solo album, Crush Songs, last week, while her NYC compatriots Interpol attempted to mount another comeback with their fifth album, El Pintor. Later this month, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas will release his debut with The Voidz as his backing band, entitled Tyranny.
September may be heavy on the nostalgia for leather jackets, Lower East Side bars where you can still smoke inside, and swagger-heavy guitar music, but that nostalgia is nothing new. By the end of the year, the five most successful acts associated with the early 2000s garage-rock/post-punk revival will have released new albums. White Stripes mastermind Jack White dropped his second solo LP, Lazaretto, just weeks after The Black Keys’ eighth effort, Turn Blue, hit shelves. But besides Interpol, the major players have evolved distinctly from their original musical aims, so much so that it’s easy to forget that White helped lead the charge of this wide-ranging trend.
Sure, there were other “The” bands that didn’t get hurled into oblivion à la The Vines when Indie’s Emotional Side (see: Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists) took over. The Hives still tour behind their ferocious Swedish garage-punk. Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” still gets synched in car commercials, right?
Still, we’re going to focus on the major players here for the sake of a good fight. We’re grading on a few scales: reinvention, artistic quality in recent years, hustle, and enduring legacy. They’re ranked from worst to best.
Interpol, or something out of Esquire? (photo by Julie Wagenaar)
5. Interpol Reinvention: 4 (out of 10) Artistic Quality in Recent Years: 5 Hustle: 4 Enduring Legacy: 6
Interpol get a lot of credit for starting something they couldn’t finish. Sure, New York’s post-punk revival would have struggled to get the exposure it did with Interpol and their hit “NYC” as its face. But the High Art expectations foisted onto them has left fans perpetually disappointed since the follow-up to their 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights. Those high hopes continue with El Pintor, which sounds like a welcome change compared to 2010’s self-titled Interpol album. In reality, the album’s a bit boring. Bassist Carlos Dengler has left the group, so they’re big on this rebirth thing as a trio, but there’s little that’s actually new about them. That’s always sort of been the issue: Interpol has never exhibited tremendous growth, and after more than a decade, it’s gotten old. Frontman Paul Banks has attempted to “mix things up” on his own, if you count a tragic rap mixtape as “mixing things up.” At least we can be glad that hasn’t leaked into Interpol albums?
4. Julian Casablancas Reinvention: 6 Artistic Quality in Recent Years: 6 Hustle: 7 Enduring Legacy: 7
Few bands have seemed as much like a fad as The Strokes — blame the meticulously disheveled haircuts and vintage tees that probably cost $60 — but they’re still here in a big way. Their sound and attitude has influenced indie rock for more than a decade now, but in recent years, they’ve failed to even be a parody of themselves (which, in itself, reflects their CBGB elders). Much of 2011’s Angles was recorded separately, under strained band dynamics, and the lack of cohesion showed in the lackluster songs. 2013’s Comedown Machine recast The Strokes as dorky purveyors of ’80s synthpop (that’s not a compliment). Still, the band played shows earlier this year to rapturous praise, and Julian Casablancas recently said they’ll get together to toss around ideas for a new Strokes record next year. And people will lose their fucking minds when it gets announced. In the meantime, Casablancas will release his second solo album, and first with a new backing band, The Voidz. Tyranny, out September 23 on his own Cult Records, shows off Casablancas’ experimental bent with little cohesion and lots of untethered guitar jams. It’s more enjoyable watching him get weird, sad, and angry instead of merely emote coolness. Still, I doubt he’ll ever escape the crowd screams of “Last Nite,” no matter how much he tries to pivot his image away from total douchedom.
3. The Black Keys Reinvention: 10 (out of 10) Artistic Quality in Recent Years: 6 Hustle: 9 Enduring Legacy: 8
In the span of two years (specifically 2010 to 2012), The Black Keys went from a midlevel band to one of the biggest rock acts on the planet. Forget playing SNL twice in one year and being synched in car commercials — we’re talking sold-out arena tours around the world. Musically, the Akron-bred duo has moved away from the garage rock revivalism they picked up on the tail-end of back in the early 2000s with their records for Alive and Fat Possum. After a slew of obscenely catchy pop-tinged hits with Danger Mouse (“Lonely Boy,” “Tighten Up”), the band went for a real “headphones” record with this spring’s middling Turn Blue. Newfound mediocrity aside, The Black Keys will continue doing what they do for the masses that love them, eventually fading into legacy rock band territory.
2. Karen O Reinvention: 9 (out of 10) Artistic Quality in Recent Years: 8 Hustle: 8 Enduring Legacy: 9
Considering the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ blistering raw early work, Karen O performing at the Oscars earlier this year felt like a triumph no one saw coming. She didn’t end up winning Best Original Song for her contributions to the Her soundtrack, “The Moon Song,” but she did prove that her soundtrack career, which includes Where the Wild Things Are, is not some fluke. Crush Songs furthered her solo reinvention down this path of vulnerable bedroom recordings — quite a departure from her 2011 psycho-opera Stop the Virgens. Although Crush Songs could stand to have more ideas and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fourth album, 2013’s Mosquito, could stand to have less of them, it would have been hard back in 2004 to imagine either of these albums emerging from the woman yelping about on on Fever To Tell. Long after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs eventually stop headlining major music festivals, O will remain a singular figure in the music, art, style, and film worlds, thanks to her uncanny ability to straddle mainstream and highbrow.
1. Jack White Reinvention: 10 (out of 10) Artistic Quality in Recent Years: 8 Hustle: 10 Enduring Legacy: 10
White’s the type of modern star who will become classic rock in 25 years; basically, he’ll never stop being on the cover of Rolling Stone. But he’s also worked harder than nearly all his peers to build an empire via Third Man Records, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and now, two solo records (2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto). He wanted to make a dent in music culture, and I think it’s fair to say he did, despite what anyone thinks of his latter-day discography and increasingly salty persona. White’s reinvented himself from his Detroit garage-rock roots so radically, few seem to focus on his six White Stripes records — which remained consistent nearly until the end — when considering his legacy.