By JARRED MIHALIK
So the new Strokes’ album is finally here. Aside from mbv, it is arguably the most anticipated album of the year so far—and the media outlets have reacted unfortunately predictably. They have dusted their old opinions off, and reaffirmed the blandly uniform view held toward The Strokes since the release of 2007’s First Impressions of Earth. Inevitably, it seems that The Strokes’ work will be overwhelmingly seen in the light of their previous work, and while that’s not a bad thing usually, in this case I believe it has gone too far. Thus I’ve made the decision to review this album by focusing on primarily the album (hint: It’s not called Is This It). Hit the jump to see how Comedown Machine fits in with the trajectory of The Strokes.
If you want to, you can read a well written account of the band for the album’s preview over at Stereogum, but I can summarize it for you in a few short bullets.
1. In June 2001, God reaches down from the heavens and grants Julian Casablancas divine powers. One month later, The Strokes release Is This It to critical claim and commercial success while also transforming the fashion world. World domination seems imminent.
2. In 2003, some of Casablancas’ power still lingers. The Strokes release Room on Fire, another extremely good album that mostly carries on the sound from Is This It.
3. In 2006, God abandons The Strokes. They release First Impressions of Earth, which is a mediocre album. The critics pounce. The future looks bleak.
4. In 2011, The Strokes for whatever reason decide to release another album that is still yet not anywhere close to the brilliance of Is This It. The critics are baffled. Angles is produced with more electronic samples and synthesizers and fails to reverse the band’s streak. People cry in the streets.
That’s the picture so far.
Sonically, Comedown Machine feels not that much different many other grungy rockers released in the past couple of years. What sets it apart is the combination of Casablancas’ vocals and the ability of the band to create multilayered, complex guitar rhythms. In essence, this is what also what made Is This It so special – it just did it at a time when there weren’t any other bands doing what they were doing. With the advent of other bands like Phoenix, The Strokes were met with some competition. Maybe this rattled the band, but in any case, First Impressions of Earth and Angles were not the huge missteps that some people made them out to be. First Impressions simply needed some better editing and a more focused sound. Angles sounded like too much of an experiment, especially with the band members recording their pieces separately. Comedown Machine avoids both pitfalls.
On the my first listen, I noted that that band sounds a lot more like a band again. Instruments build off each other while Casablancas’ vocals sit in the passenger seat, neither ahead of nor behind the band’s sound. The album’s playtime (as noticeably displayed on the cover) comes in at just under forty minutes. And finally, each song has a certain amount of undeniable self-assurance. The Strokes were hyped up so much following their breakthrough, and in the mercurial music world it’s generally impossible to follow that kind of success. It is impossible to know exactly what the band was thinking during the release and subsequent drubbing of First Impressions and Angles, but I would like to think I knew their mindset as they approached their fifth album. Sure, The Strokes could have released another Is This It-esque creation, but I don’t believe the band wants to be burdened with such hyperbole ever again. They titled this album Comedown Machine, and so far it seems to be fulfilling its purpose. The Strokes are coming down to earth and level ground, avoiding both stratospheric fame and the depths of infamy. Look at the album title. RCA (the record label) is featured the most prominently, with the band name and album title in smaller font below. And to top it off, the band has been uniformly silent about the album’s release. There were no secret television previews a la Daft Punk, and they are not planning to tour in support of the album. To put it succinctly, Comedown Machine is a solid, unassuming album from The Strokes, and it’s their first one ever.
That doesn’t mean that the album itself is of uniform quality though. On the first few listens, I definitely had favorite songs, songs that made me lose interest, and songs that I wouldn’t have ever picked to be on a Strokes album. Opener “Tap Out” has an interesting and spacey melodic line, but would have benefitted from a much stronger guitar line and I was never pulled fully into the song. Some people have already cited this as a breakthrough song though, so perhaps I’m missing something. “All the Time” is another passable song, but mostly comes off as an imitation of earlier days of The Strokes. It would have fit well on Room on Fire, but I don’t think it belongs here.
Things really kick into gear with “One Way Trigger,” whose bouncy electronic melody presents the first truly recognizable sounds of the album. Casablancas’ voice sounds achingly sweet soaring under the melodies, but unfortunately it’s still almost impossible to understand what he’s saying. No matter. Combined with some good guitar bits, this makes for a great song. Follow up “Welcome to Japan” is also welcome, with Casablancas’ wry lyrics and voice dripping with a certain amount of threatening carelessness (I didn’t want to bore you; Didn’t wanna pick up your shit for you). The build-up throughout the song is precisely measured and pays off. The album then takes a breather with “80’s Comedown Machine” whose methodical pace is more listenable than would be expected. Echoes of Casablancas singing So please…run away again and again introduce a believably melancholy feeling into the album.
“50/50” jolts the listener from the reverie of “80’s Comedown Machine,” with a much brasher sound that doesn’t translate as well as it should. It’s another throwback to earlier Strokes days, but doesn’t succeed in the same way “All the Time” does. “Slow Animals” and “Partners in Crime” are both listenable songs, but fail to leave much of an impression.
“Chances” is another slower, ballad-esque song that seems mostly to serve as an opportunity for Casablancas to break out his falsetto, which isn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed listening to the background instrumentals behind his voice, which gives this song infinitely more replay value. The album’s penultimate song is excellent “Happy Ending,” whose intermix of rollicking guitars and vocals present a varied and exciting sound. I wish it had been placed earlier in the album, but with a title like this I guess that was a long shot. The closing track “Call it Fate, Call it Karma” on the other hand is a question mark. It reminds me of the last song off Angles (and my favorite of the album) “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” with its slow pace and fuzzy vocals. Maybe because of the excellence of the previous song though, this last song fails to close the album well for me.
Comedown Machine is a solid effort for the band, something that would have seemed strange a few years ago given that this band is The Strokes. They’ve had an up-and-down history, and their five album recording contract with RCA just ended, so the future is uncertain. If they keep making albums like this though, I’ll be very happy.
“All The Time”