By Eli Winter
HOUSTON, Texas, U.S.A. – The Strokes have never been known for their predictability.
Comedown Machine, their new album released today, proudly reaffirms that idea. With this latest record, you hear the New York band evolving, slowly but surely, from their scruffy, apathetic threads of a decade ago to some nice, shiny, New Wave clothes from the 1980s.
A quick refresher on the history of The Strokes – their debut EP started a bidding war to sign the band to a major label, which RCA Records won out. Their debut album, Is This It, released in 2001, as expected, received a huge amount of praise and many placements on best-of-the-decade lists.Their second album two years later, Room on Fire, attempted to expand their sound slightly with the incorporation of some elements of reggae and guitars-that-sound-like-keyboards.
Their third, First Impressions of Earth released in 2006, saw the band’s edgy, frantic side, with 14 songs that were generally very energetic or very lethargic.
The most recent album before Comedown Machine was Angles, released two years ago after a five-year hiatus.
Angles saw the band going in many different directions at the same time, despite their frontman Julian Casablancas’ forced separation from the group - which made the album a love-hate affair, and which I also wrote about here.
All these different styles of songwriting and recording seemed to have one main result: No one was entirely pleased. No one.
Comedown Machine appears to have had the same outcome – it’s proven a divisive listen among critics, but I see it as one of the band’s best works.
It’s only natural for the band to evolve, but natural selection is a gradual process. With this album, The Strokes are moving closer to their next consistently critically successful smash.
The songs on Comedown Machine go all over the place, from sounding like the ‘80s band A-ha’s hit song, “Take On Me” to organ-driven classic rock, from angry, angsty, scuzzy garage rock to lounge music and even a little bit of chillwave.
Yet The Strokes are able to unify all these sounds together in a way that keeps you on your toes. You don’t know what to expect, but you don’t mind it, because while some songs play, you can dance the anxious anticipation off.
A good example of a song that keeps your toes tapping is “Tap Out,” the first song on Comedown Machine. To prove its danceability, it’s already been mashed up with the infamous Duane meme (as in Duane, from “Barbie Dance Club,” that Duane.)
If you’re more of a listener than a dancer, as I am, though, you won’t miss a beat, pardon the pun. There’s such a range of sounds in this one song – guitars that sound like staccato synthesizers, the organ which adds a classic rock vibe to the chorus, the double-tracked vocals of Julian Casablancas – that you could listen to it a thousand times and hear something new every time.
“One Way Trigger” has a pretty big palette as well, with falsettos from multiple band members, more guitars that sound like synthesizers and even an acoustic guitar – listen for it, it’s there – all combined to make one of The Strokes’ more intense songs.
Not all of the songs on this album are like that. “All The Time,” their first single from the album, is very much guitar-driven, and the only bad thing about it is the maddening 30 seconds of silence at the end.
“Welcome To Japan” features The Strokes trying their luck at impulsive, random humor (“Didn’t know the gun was loaded/Didn’t really know this/What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” and “Oh, welcome to Japan!/Scuba-dancing!/Touchdown!”) which goes well with the slightly off-kilter nature of the song.
“50/50” has Casablancas at his angriest, howling with ferocity at all the critics out there, “Don’t judge me!”
“Partners In Crime” shows The Strokes try their hand at some offbeat, Pavement-inspired rock, but without the fuzz and feedback of the ‘90s lo-fi legends.
But just because a song isn’t as danceable doesn’t mean The Strokes have blessed it with the old and gold sounds of their debut. No, no, far from it. In “Chances,” we hear Casablancas pull out his falsetto as the rest of the band pulls out their electronics.
“80s Comedown Machine,” while not as slow-core sad as “Call Me Back,” and not as synth-styled as “Games,” still appears to have influence from all those songs – and proves a relaxing listen, which is good, because if you fall asleep during that song, “50/50” will be the alarm that jars you out of your bed.
Its title notwithstanding, “Slow Animals” can be considered a build-up song, with each layer of instrumentation adding to the carefully orchestrated chaos. Despite its frenetic beginning, “Happy Ending” spoils its climax for the listener, but is still one you’ll like to hear. The album’s closer, “Call It Fate Call It Karma,” is oddly soulful and at ease.
It’s as if the band is relieved that their album’s all done, yet they still sound happy, as happy as one can be while listening to mellow, Little Joy-esque, sad bar jukebox songs inspired by Tom Waits. The feeling of calm and tranquility is one we haven’t heard in a while, and it’s not the worst one to hear, either.
While Comedown Machine can be somewhat straggling, The Strokes put it all together well. This is another melting-pot album of theirs, but unlike Angles, this effort is more cohesive, and the best part is, they actually sound happy doing it.