March 27, 2013

Test Spins: The Strokes, Comedown Machine

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The Strokes we were introduced to all those years ago — before 9/11, before the garage rock explosion and before radio-bound guitar music was defined by its proximity to Mumford and Sons — are a lot different than the guys we are listening to on Comedown Machine. Having weathered the entirety of their five-album recording contract with RCA, The Strokes are now husbands, fathers and music industry veterans. It might be time for everyone to realize that the magic of The Strokes’ first album may have relied heavily on the young band’s boozy nonchalance.  That young cadre of over-privileged, well-dressed Manhattanites recorded an album in the face of deafening hype and named it in the most self-deprecating manner possible, beating the naysayers to the punch: Is This It? Those speed-addled youths of yesteryear crapped out classics and, during recording, broke out into stifled laughter at how easy it all seemed.

Nowadays, we are dealing with a band of professionals. They’ve undertaken their vanity projects, they’ve resolved their interpersonal issues and they’ve released their fifth album. Professionalism is by no means a negative here. Julian Casablancas and company, at this point, know very well how to write a good Strokes song. “All The Time” is as good as anything The Strokes have recorded since First Impressions of Earth; that signature interplay between Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, Julian’s insouciant croon and those distinct guitar tones stand to remind us that these guys practically invented this shit. The aggressive guitar riff and snarling vocal delivery on “50/50” lends the album a visceral tint, recalling manic turns like “New York City Cops” or “Juicebox.” Following the synth-heavy experiments of Angles, the newfound reliance on the songwriting tricks of old works far better than one might anticipate. The Strokes sound reinvigorated rather than limited.

Of course, what’s a new Strokes album without Julian’s own subdued reinterpretations of 80s pop? There’s the a-ha indebted “One Way Trigger,” the sci-fi exposition of “Tap Out” and the explicit homage of “80s Comedown Machine.” It makes for a unique retro blend: 60s garage, 70s punk and 80s synth-pop as interpreted by children of the 90s. There’s something profound here to be said about misplaced nostalgia, but I’m too distracted by Julian’s prevalent falsetto to really follow through with it. Seriously: there’s hardly a track that goes by where Casablancas doesn’t shoot for that upper register. It isn’t entirely unpleasant, but for a band that was initially praised for its salt-of-the-earth approach to rock, it has always seemed somehow incongruent.

There is plenty of pleasure to be had on Comedown Machine: The Strokes are working well as a unit here, birthing plenty of satisfying hooks and, on songs like “All The Time,” “Tap Out” and “50/50,” occasionally flirting with the magnificent highs of their past triumphs. Closer “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” however, indicates a possible roadmap forward. The track, a delicate lullaby reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s laid-back self-titled effort, is shambled and melancholy, with Julian beckoning: “Can I waste all your time here on the sidewalk? / Can I stand in your light just for a while?” It’s a surprising twist ending to an album that mostly colored within the lines, revealing that these former leather-clad rockers might have a future exploring their tender side. Comedown Machine may not be the thrilling conclusion that RCA’s executives were undoubtedly awaiting, but it shows that The Strokes are in good shape and, freed from the shackles of major label servitude, may till more fertile grounds in the future.

Or they could break up tomorrow. After all, on “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” Julian requests: “Close the door / Not all the way.” Who knows? At the very least, they’ve left us another reminder of what they do well, even if it’s far from perfect.

Original Author: By JAMES RAINIS