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Most journalists like to start off their reviews of whatever the latest Strokes album is by mentioning their debut album, Is This It, and the seismic impact it had on the past ten or so years of rock and indie music. Let’s just skip over all of that: you can read tons of articles about how good (or bad) Is This It is, this is about Comedown Machine, The Strokes’ latest album. After being both announced and released with little to no promotion, The Strokes are out to make a point about their band’s imagine. The point being that they have no image.
Other than the album’s deep red cover, complete with a RCA (their ex-record company) logo that is bigger than their own name and a booklet that simply consists of six shadowy faces (closer inspection reveals them to be the same pictures that introduced the band to the world through Is This It’s booklet), there have been no new images of the band and only one real interview. Its a shrewd move, obviously done in order to prevent the potential of any bad press. When they released Angles in 2011, articles about them were plagued by rumors of fighting amongst members and a generally disjointed vibe; all a bunch of “he said, she said” nonsense that was more so suitable for tabloids readers.
So now, out of nowhere, we have 11 new Strokes songs. No press, no interviews, just these 11 songs. Some have seen it as a bold move, others a sign of the band’s imminent dissolution, but the fact remains that all of this is conjecture. 11 songs, nearly 40 minutes worth of music, and not a word from the rest of the band nearly two weeks after launch. Suspicious? Yes. Intriguing? Sort of. Good enough for this reviewer? Absolutely.
Let’s get this out of the way: There are two mediocre tracks on the album. “All The Time”, misguidedly picked as their first single, sounds like The Strokes on auto-pilot. All the ingredients are there: Casablancas’ slightly distorted croon, Fab and Nikolai’s rock-steady rhythm section, and the twin-guitar assault that defined their sound… But it just sounds too much like The Strokes. At their best, The Strokes make the complex sound simple, and “All The Time” sounds both way too simple and way too over-thought.
“50/50”, on the other hand, is possibly the worst song The Strokes have ever committed to record. Again, all of the elements are there, but smashed into a terrible faux-punk setting. Think about what a Strokes-impersonator band sounds like (and there are plenty to think about) and you’re on the right track.
Now, take a deep breath and let this sink in: The Strokes do not sound like their 2001 incarnation. Much like their 2011 comeback album Angles, Comedown Machine takes on many different genres throughout its nearly 40 minutes of music and if you’re expecting an album that sounds like Is This It or Room On Fire you’ll surely be disappointed. However, for the Strokes fan with an open mind, Comedown Machine is probably their most consistent and thought out album since 2003.
Right out of the gate, we start off with “Tap Out”. With its disco beat and Michael Jackson 80s pop sound, this will surely cause the “purists” to tune out. That’s fine; they’re missing out on one of the best Strokes tracks, period. On first listen, it makes absolutely no sense to open the album with such a different sounding track, but multiple listens reveal the true genius of the track. Endlessly catchy, timelessly cool, elegantly dirty… However you want to describe the song, “Tap Out” is the perfect example of the warped-genius behind the 2013 revitalization of The Strokes. Guitars wrap themselves around the melody all the while the entire sound is firmly held down by the airtight rhythm section. It sounds so much like The Strokes while, at the same time, sounding nothing like them at all.
“One Way Trigger”, the “controversial” track they released as an album preview, sounds so much better after a few spins. Casablancas’ falsetto nicely heightens the already dramatic chorus and the song rushes through a guitar solo to a thrilling conclusion. The biggest change for anyone even sort-of familiar with The Strokes is Casablancas’ aforementioned falsetto. Known for his deeper, crooning style of singing, its an extremely jarring change and one that may immediately turn off some listeners. However, the more you let the album wrap it’s 80s inspired pop-goodness around you, the more his new singing style makes sense.
Take the soft, synth-balladry of “Chances” (another first for The Strokes) in which Casablancas’ vocals register somewhere close to dog whistle’s pitch. In theory it shouldn’t work, but the melodies are dreamy enough to justify the choice and Casablancas manages to inject just enough emotion to make everything come together in a beautiful and coherent fashion. “80s Comedown Machine” follows the same blue-prints, but replaces swooning synths and falsettos with psychedelic mellotrons and whispered vocals.
That being said, there are moments on Comedown Machine that still sound like The Strokes, but with a fresh coat of paint. “Partners In Crime”, probably the more upbeat track they’ve ever released, feels so comfortable and inviting. The song bounces along while Casablancas glides over the proceedings with his vocals and that effortlessly cool feeling is immediately present. “Welcome To Japan” carries on the feel-good attitude with its fun and funky guitars that groove along without a care in the world. Like a good dance song (make no mistake, this album is about as dancey as the Strokes get), it appropriately drops, builds up, drops, and finally, builds up again before crashing into an ending.
Then there are the songs that are somewhere in-between that old Strokes feel and the new Strokes sound. “Happy Ending” is guided by a great push-and-pull between Casablancas’ paced vocals and the driving guitars and synths before both collide in a precision-perfect chorus. “Slow Animals,” on the other hand, sounds a lot like Angles’ “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight”, with its highlights being Casablancas harmonizing with himself in both falsetto and his usual, chest voice and the atmospheric bridge that slowly evolves into the chorus through a haze of arpeggiated synths. Like all good Strokes songs, all of the various parts seem to run into each other at just the right time.
Finally, ending the album is the completely out of the place and question mark causing, “Call it Fate, Call it Karma”. Awesomely referencing a line in Ghost Busters is one thing, ending an album of upbeat, guitar and synth combo pop with a 50s inspired balladry is something else. Oddly enough it works, if only in the weirdest way possible. If you ever wanted to have Casablancas soothingly sing you to sleep, this is about as close as you’re gonna get. In fact, this is probably the most intriguing track The Strokes have ever released. It hardly fits in with the rest of the album, even with its genre-hopping weirdness, and literally sounds like nothing they have ever released before. Much like the majority of Comedown Machine, its a bold step in a new direction.
As much as The Strokes would probably like to, they can’t entirely throw away their past. Their music and style is far too engrained in the modern indie and rock canon to imagine a world without Is This It. “Decide my past, define my life, don’t ask questions cause I don’t know why”, whispers Casablancas in “Tap Out” with more than a hint of defiance. Since they released their first EP in early 2001, The Strokes have always had to deal with extreme hyperbole (both positive and negative) from the press and their fans. No, Comedown Machine is not the second-coming of rock’s quote-unquote saviors, but it is a good album. Some might even say its a great album. Somewhere along the way (see: the six months in between the release of their EP and their hyped debut), it simply wasn’t enough for The Strokes to release a good album. Comparisons to Is This It will endure as long as the band continue to release music, but the simple truth is that nothing will compare to that album. Let us all step back and remember that it is okay for bands to release albums that are simply good. Comedown Machine isn’t life changing, nor will it find a place in the top 5 influential albums of the past decade (something that Is This It did in spades), but it simply is a thrilling and fun way to spend 40 minutes. Yes, The Strokes have technically been back since 2010, but now they really are back. Take it or leave it, they’re here to stay.