Review Summary: The end of a road for the Strokes.
It opens up like everything else in their career has - fully formed, cocksure, a raucous roar of feedback swelling out triumphantly over a field’s worth of screaming fans. The video tells a story in documentary form, bony-faced guitarist Nick Valensi smiling and giving the camera the finger before segueing into Julian Casablancas playing the brusque frontman (the carefully considered “how-do-I-look-like-I-haven’t-showered-in-days look paired with the classic sunglasses at night, etc.) and then cuts to a promotional poster: “Who The Hell Are The Strokes"”
before Fabrizo Moretti bangs his kit and the VU meter rockets into the red. That’s what the Strokes have always been, all while looking effortless at it all. They were the New York City Rock Band, brazen and loud and unerringly confident, unerringly cool, five friends loving life and rock ‘n roll. Yet these images are from the past and this song (“All The Time”) is a mere retread from the present, the Strokes trying on a pair of stretched-out jeans from 2001 one more time in the hopes of seeing them fit. When Comedown Machine
tries to recapture past glories is when it is at its worst.
Even if “All The Time” would have you believe otherwise, the Strokes know this is the end of an era. Comedown Machine
is a good name for the record, as exhausted and self-aware as it sounds; it could also be called The Last Record We Have To Make For RCA
, if you want to read into that tongue-in-cheek album art. The absolute lack of publicity; the silence regarding future touring plans; the leftover rifts from the contentious recording of Angles
; the dubious claims that, unlike Angles
, Comedown Machine
was a rather comfortable affair (they even recorded together!) – it all points to a band nearing the end of a run, or at least gearing up for something completely different. Because make no mistake: Comedown Machine
is definitely different. It is without a plan and without much of an aim, save for vague touchstones in ‘80s pop and new wave, a path tread much more smoothly by Casablancas’ prior solo work. In its anything-goes attitude and slapstick approach, however, the Strokes end up sounding more at ease than anything they’ve done since Is This It
, when they came on the scene unencumbered by expectations and mounting skepticism.
“At ease” is not to be confused with “pleasant,” however. Angles’
freewheeling attitude towards songwriting is expanded on here with greater emphasis on disco and funk undertones. Coupled with the band’s “anything goes” attitude and a seemingly haphazard approach to sequencing, Comedown Machine
offers unfortunate pairings like the retro “All The Time” and the jarring falsetto of a-ha accident “One Way Trigger,” or the narcotic buzz kill of “80’s Comedown Machine” with the ragged garage rock of “50/50.” The latter half of the record, in particular, blurs together into a number of agreeable songs that nevertheless seem more indebted to the work of bands that are themselves indebted to the Strokes (Phoenix, Neon Trees, Hot Hot Heat), ‘80s synths and rote disco-punk rhythms predominating even when Casablancas manages to break through the murky distortion that usually cocoons his voice with a surprisingly sturdy falsetto (“Chances”). It boils down to a record that is as directionless as the band itself now seems to be, trying out new ideas and recycling them with other ones as quickly as one track skips to the next.
When those ideas are given time to develop, however, is where the Strokes still show they know how to write a damn fine pop song. Opener “Tap Out” sounds like the Strokes filtered through Hot Chip’s brand of musical futurism, seductive and dexterous and with a brilliant bit of musical interplay that mines the increasingly funky spaces between Nikolai Fraiture's bass and those kinetic twin guitars. “Welcome To Japan,” meanwhile, takes one of the band’s more open, playful compositions and ratchets up the seedy, nonchalant cool at its undercurrent into an emotional catharsis that accomplishes the rare feat of making Casablancas sound like he cares. Nothing, however, sounds as detached from any concept of the Strokes as closer “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” where the band takes a detour into some hushed Cuban bar in the ‘40s and reimagines Casablancas as a smoky lounge singer and the band as his shuffling, tuxedoed cohorts. It’s different and sexy, and in its quiet is a bit of desperation as well: “Can I stand in your light, just for awhile"” Casablancas asks before finally realizing, “I needed someone.” It’s arresting and a bit sad, too; the culmination of the Strokes trying out every new tool in an increasingly diverse bag of tricks but still coming out with a record insubstantial enough to be a eclectic demo tape for just another band yet unsure of what they want to be, a band still overshadowed by a light cast over a decade ago. That reality is a far cry from the polished badasses that created Is This It
, and perhaps now that’s how it has to be. Maybe Casablancas’ realization at the end of “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is as simple as it sounds – what him and the rest of the band need can no longer be fulfilled by the Strokes.