The Joy of Strokes

The Strokes are officially on "hiatus" until early 2009, but really, does anyone care? They aren't the same hungry young Manhattanites who released Is This It in 2001. That raw, disaffected downtown sound has grown stale over the years from a combination of lackluster live shows, awkward bridges into alt-rock radio (First Impressions of Earth left a poor impression), and a sense that the intense media glare burned this band out early on.

Nowhere is it made clearer that the Strokes needed a timeout than in its members' side projects. The first major spin-offs to hit the shelves sound so much fresher and more creatively inspired than anything the Strokes have produced since they first broke. There's a palpable lightness to these smaller outings that was lacking in the larger outfit, which took its superstar position so terribly seriously. And yet the Strokes' early talent for effortless hooks, not to mention some of the same guitar lines, remains in these new recordings.

Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. was the first to officially splinter off, spinning out two solo albums worth of jangle-pop levity and crush-note lyrics (the debut disc is better than its follow-up). But my favorite Strokes spin-off is Little Joy, a sweet bundle of Tropicalia-perfumed, folksy indie-pop from drummer Fabrizio Moretti. That group's recent debut moves with an infectious simplicity that references the Strokes without absorbing any of their baggage.

Based in Los Angeles, Little Joy comprises Moretti; his girlfriend, Binki Shapiro; and Brazilian Rodrigo Amarante of Los Hermanos, who trade off on instrumental and vocal duties. Their self-titled debut is a great combination of loungy balladry and Strokes-like jams, mixing the scuffed-leather charm of Is This It and the eclectic, Latin-toned genre-hopping of Devendra Banhart's latest output.

Banhart is actually the most prominent touchstone for Little Joy. Moretti and Amarante cemented plans to record together when the latter guested on mutual friend Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, and Banhart conspirator Noah Georgeson produced Little Joy. (Not to mention that Moretti played drums on Banhart's Megapuss project.) Like Smokey Rolls, Little Joy flirts with Latin melodies, subtle harmonies, and unfettered optimism, bolstered by hints of bossa nova and language slips between Spanish and English.

On "Don't Watch Me Dancing," Shapiro's laments are candied by the sugar of her croon, the harmonies of her male counterparts, and snowballing horn and string arrangements. The song is utterly romantic. In fact, much of Little Joy is for lovers, with warm, human touches enveloping the album. Whereas the Strokes kept you at arm's length (making songs for unrepentant — albeit alluring — playboys with fears of commitment), Little Joy pulls you closer, offering a "Brand New Start" (another gem). Songs like "Play the Part" and "With Strangers" are so closely miked, you can hear Amarante drawing breaths and picture his fingers strumming an acoustic guitar as his bandmates hum softly behind him. This is music for candlelit moments, and not only when the wicks burn along the bar during last call.

And yet Little Joy can't let go of the original act from which Moretti sprang. On "Shoulder to Shoulder," and particularly on "Keep Me In Mind," Amarante sounds just like Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas after a vacation: he's looser, slightly more languid, but with that same effortless-cool kick to his vocals. (The guitar work on "Keep Me In Mind" also hammers home the Is This It connection; friends of mine swore it was a new Strokes single when I played it for them.)

I was a fan of the Strokes when they first hit, and I believe their debut still stands the test of time as a great album. The problem is that in the years since, the group has been falling away from the curve instead of working from behind it. (That's not even mentioning the rip-offs that've arrived in the band's wake — Costa Mesa's Japanese Motors being the most recent and worst example.) But if a once-great idea starts sounding forced, it's better to put that songwriting energy elsewhere, exactly as Hammond and Moretti have done. Their post-Strokes projects — and Little Joy in particular — prove that these skilled players can remain on top when they replace a detached attitude with actual detachment from stagnant megastardom.

 
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