- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

It’s a good thing the Sex Pistols were touring this year, because now it all makes sense. The punk revolution they led in 1977 spawned fresh art-rock forms called new wave and post-punk that flourished in the early ‘80s.

Now it’s happening all over again.

Two New York bands, the Rapture and the Strokes, are on the front end of an ‘80s renaissance. (I say “renaissance” when I should probably say “risorgimento”: Both bands include a good share of ethnic Italians.)

The Rapture released its long-awaited second full-length album, “Echoes,” Tuesday, and the Strokes will drop their sophomore album, “Room on Fire,” next week.

“Echoes” and “Room,” while different in many respects, share a common stock of influences, including the Talking Heads, Johnny Rotten’s post-Pistols band, Public Image Ltd., and — gasp — Modern English.

No doubt accidentally, the two bands demonstrate anew the basic split between the new wave and post-punk offspring. New wave bands such as the Police played straightforward pop rock, while post-punk stretched into more avant-garde, synthesizer-driven territory, a la Yaz.

The Strokes are, more or less, in the new wave camp, while the Rapture leans more in the post-punk direction of the Cure and indie-dance acts such as Depeche Mode.

With traditional two-guitar instrumentation, the secret to the Strokes’ sound is in Gordon Raphael’s production. As he did on the band’s “Is This It” debut, Mr. Raphael brings the rhythm section to the front of the mix, letting Nikolai Fraiture’s bass drive most songs with melodic eighth-note patterns while dampening Fabrizio Moretti’s snare drum to a flat softness.

The effect is unmistakably retro, as modern microphone technology has enabled recording engineers to capture the “pop” of a snare with amazingly high fidelity.

The first 10 seconds of “Room” — from the song “What Ever Happened?” — are definitive Strokes: digga-digga-digga rhythm guitars in middle-range tones, accompanied by compressed percussion that sounds like it’s crammed into a bottle or off in a faraway corner.

Julian Casablancas, the singer and songwriter, is content to let his desperately strident vocals lie dead in the middle of the mix, as though he’s singing through a megaphone from the bottle of a swimming pool.

On “12:51,” the band harks back to the Cars, perhaps the most enduring group from the ‘80s new wave — although the Strokes take pains to avoid synthesizers (unlike the Rapture).

Instead, the Greg Hawkesian synth line in the song is approximated by Strokes lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.

They draw from the Clash for the stiff reggae of “Automatic Stop,” on which Mr. Casablancas snarls, “I’m not your friend / I never was.”

Overall, “Room on Fire” is a stylistic and sonic doppelganger of “Is This It” — a solid holding action, with perhaps a promise of even better things to come.

“Echoes” is the braver statement. It’s a thorough updating of synth — and electropop for a time when the music has either been frowned upon, mangled by artists such as Madonna or changed beyond recognition by boundary-pushing bands such as Radiohead.

The Rapture is true to the form, sounding simultaneously of-the-moment and like slavish throwbacks. Lead vocalist-guitarist Luke Jenner sounds hauntingly like the Cure’s Robert Smith, for example, but sells the imitation with a Roger Waters-like franticness.

Gabriel Andruzzi adds a skittering saxophone, another subtle touch of Pink Floyd.

“Echoes” was co-written by the Rapture and Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy, a production duo known as the DFA. The album is densely layered with pitter-patter drumbeats and synthesizers that fizz and burble.

The lyrics to several songs — “House of Jealous Lovers,” the title track, “Killing” — are little more than repetitive chants and seem geared to clubs and dance halls.

Other tracks, including the mellow acoustic number “Open Up Your Heart” and the straight rocker “Love Is All,” are fit for more passive listening.

Proof of the exquisite care the DFA and the Rapture took in crafting the album is in its sequencing; the ending of each song is placed in perfect proximity to the beginning of the next.

While this structure is intended for a totalizing song experience, the Rapture pulls it off without “concept album” pretense.

If “Echoes” isn’t the best album of 2003, it’s a strong contender for ‘83.

To their credit, both the Strokes and the Rapture have shown there’s plenty of gold to be mined and sifted from that much-maligned decade.

Yes, folks, the ‘80s are back. As transmitted by the Strokes and the Rapture, I gotta say they’re even better this time around.

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