Review Summary: Comedown Machine doesn't see the Strokes reinventing the wheel, but it's a solid, catchy record with a few interesting deviations from their typical musical style.
It's unfair to expect that the Strokes will ever be able to match the greatness of their first album, 'Is This It'. Every subsequent effort they release will invariably be compared to it, with the verdict always, "Not as good." Of course, the comparison is always a little unfair. 'Is This It' was more than just a good album: it was a highly influential one, and with that comes expectations. Critical hyperbole ('the saviors of rock') followed, until it was discovered that the Strokes had no such lofty ambitions. Instead of meeting the expectations heaped upon them, they seemed perfectly content making albums of catchy, glossy pop rock. And because subsequent albums lacked such groundbreaking aspirations, critical reaction against the group soured, reaching an all-time low with the group's unfairly maligned 2011 LP, 'Angles' (a solid, short album that was certainly a step up from the excess of 2006's 'First Impressions of Earth').
'Comedown Machine,' the group's latest effort, will invariably be compared to 'Angles' as well. Some have already declared it far superior to its predecessor, but the truth is, the two are quite similar. If anything, 'Comedown Machine' is the slightly scruffier twin to 'Angles.' It has a similar length (the band have found their sweet spot at a little over half an hour), and it features a similar mix of catchy guitar tunes and introspective ballads to its predecessor.
The synthpop stylings of 'Angles' continues as well, though 'Comedown Machine's' head is more stuck in the past. As the retro cover hints, the album owes quite a lot to 1980s pop. Album opener "Tap Out," for instance, begins with a quick, screeching guitar solo before shifting into a pulsing guitar groove that brings to mind The Police or maybe even Devo. The song switches melodies several times, each of them just as catchy as the one before.
If there's any track on here that's quintessentially Strokes-ish, though, it's lead single "All the Time," which features a loud, oversaturated chorus in which singer Julian Casablancas' vocals show their edge. Strip away the production value and the song wouldn't have even been out of place on 'Is This It.'
"One Way Trigger" features the clearest, most jarring use of a synthesizer (right there from the beginning), but while those synths have a hard, jangly edge, they're seen elsewhere on the album with a softer, ambient vibe ("Chances," "80's Comedown Machine"). Those looking for grittier guitars have plenty to enjoy, too: "50 50" and "Partners and Crime" each feature distortion pedals to great effect. Fans of 'First Impressions of Earth' standout "Heart in a Cage" and its ilk will find quite a bit to love here.
Standout track "Welcome to Japan" is undoubtedly the group's funkiest yet; the bassline borders on straight-up disco (I'm reminded of Jamiroquai's "Dynamite"), while Casablancas' lyrics wonder, "What kind of asshole drives a Lotus"" It's clever and highly danceable, but it's also an example of The Strokes subtly expanding musically, essentially enculturating funk into their already distinctive sound.
But it's the album's final track that is the most markedly different. "Call It Fate Call It Karma" is vaguely reminiscent of the stripped down, relaxed vibes of 'Angles' tracks "Call Me Back" and "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight," but the production makes it sound like 1950s-era jazz played through a dusty phonograph (there's even an ever-so-brief trumpet note). It's so unlike everything else on the album that it could really only serve as the closer, but it's a strangely satisfying closer -- probably due to the fact that the song's only obviously shared DNA with the rest of the album is the group's penchant for catchy songwriting.
'Comedown Machine' isn't a major deviation from the rest of the Strokes' catalogue, but it might be their most sonically ambitious since their debut. While it follows rather closely in form and content to their last album, 'Angles,' its baby steps away from the group's established genre of catchy pop-rock make it a fresh and highly engrossing record.