Album Review: Comedown Machine – The Strokes
I wasn’t born in the seventies. If I had been then chances are I would’ve gone to college during the “heyday” of alternative music, and spent my afternoons getting high and listening to Loveless. Well, I did end up spending my afternoons getting high and listening to Loveless (I guess I wouldn’t be denied), but when I got to University the biggest thing in music was The Strokes, and the whole neo-garage revival. Because I went to school in Manhattan, and it was the dawn of the millenium, I couldn’t get away from the aesthetic which would eventully mature into full-blown hipsterdom, and I allowed myself to be sucked into the hype machine (could you sense the “I was a begrudging hipster before there were hipsters" vibe of that last sentence? Yeah, I hate myself too). I owned not one, but two studded belts, black jeans so tight they probably left me sterile... and I was the kind of guy who wore black dress shirts and white ties to school. My final, and most vital, accessory was a Discman, and the record I listened to on my train ride in from Brooklyn everyday was The Strokes' undeniably-classic debut, Is This It?. For those of you who are curious, the iPod was released that same holiday season.
Well it’s been 12 years since the release of Is This It? and unfortunately the millennial tastemakers who are essentially responsible for the existence of Jet (there was a massive amount of collateral damage from the aforementioned neo-garage revival) have been on a downward trajectory all century. The follow-up record, Room On Fire, was solid, contained several enjoyable highlights, and was a party staple. Looking back First Impressions Of Earth was the first real miss in the band’s catalogue, though it's real flaw was merely being unremarkable. Then there’s Angles... I would rather not get into Angles. So where does that leave The Strokes? Um... rich and well traveled? I guess that was the wrong question, allow me try again: So what about their latest record, Come Down Machine? Well it’s better than Angles.
Come Down Machine possesses an extremely meta, feel. It’s as if the lads gathered together for a band meeting and decided they needed to regain some focus, and figure out how to write some Stroke-like material. Of course it would be too insulting for them as musicians to go back to writing the blistering yet apathetic jams of yesteryear, so they instead decided to mine the sounds of the eighties, hoping to create some kind of hybrid. Anyway that’s surely the method Julian Casablancas wanted to use, and I get the impression the band basically exists at his whim now.
The record opens up with Tap Out, a cut with the type of throwback sound which modern listeners (i.e. kids today) can’t possibly relate to. I’m not sure if The Strokes plan is to only appeal to the nostalgia-heavy hearts of thirty somethings, but there’s no way someone born during the Clinton administration or beyond could appreciate what’s happening on Tap Out. The band decides to “get back to basics” with Comedown Machine’s second track, All The Time, as they bring back the two guitar attack, and faster tempos, of their first records- but there’s something hollow about the cut, and it's ultimately unsatisfying. The thing is, I can totally sense how much the band was really trying with All The Time, and the end result makes me kind of sad.
One Way Trigger takes us back to the Ah-Ha-tinged soundscapes of thirty years ago, and features a healthy dose of Casablancas’ (trademark?) pinched falsetto. I’m not sure what has convinced Casablancas to employ this vocal delivery so often, but when he raises into higher octaves his voice loses a lot of its presence and projection- so although he’s singing melodies which are more complex than anything written during the band’s early years, they’re largely lost in the mix. Thankfully Casablancas goes back to singing like vintage Casablancas on the somewhat absurd, yet oddly enjoyable, Welcome To Japan. The lyrical content of this track is baffling but, for reasons which I honestly can't understand or express, this “ode” to the land of the Lotus does manage to stand out. At this point in their career I guess The Strokes will consider that a success.
Welcome To Japan kicks off what is by far Comedown Machine’s best stretch of tunes. 50/50 manages to channel some of the band’s fading glories, while not being bogged down with overly calculated production choices (a feat which I suspect is easier than they make it out to be). 80s Comedown Machine is a dreamy, bubbling, ballad which is “retro” in all the right ways, and possesses a woozy, laid-back feel, which isn’t interpretable as a lack of verve. Finally, Slow Animals endures Casablanca’s falsetto delivery in its verses before opening up and delivering the album’s best, and catchiest, chorus.
Comedown Machines's final third goes straight into the heart of the torn down nightclub. Chances starts off with a soft-pad intro, and makes way for more of Casablancas' falsetto. Happy Endings is the album’s last attempt at the hybridization of “rock” and new-wave, and much like the rest of the record it doesn’t accomplish its desired task... and then there’s Call It Fate Call It Karma. Many people have dubbed Call It Fate Call It Karma as "The Strokes doing Tom Waits" (which I’m pretty sure no one was clamoring for), but I consider it to be a song which Casablancas forced the other guys to include on Comedown Machine. Call It Fate Call It Karma is a perplexing note to end this record on, as it unquestionably spends all of the sonic currency the band tried diligently to raise over the course of Comedown Machine. I’m positive The Strokes hadn't intended to end their record so miserably, but that can’t be changed now.
Now that the studded belts which were once proudly worn are in a landfill, and the Lower East Side is deader than Williamsburg, The Strokes, and their current sound, are old strangers in a modern and digital strange land. They were once the proud candle holders of an anachronism worth revitalizing, and now they’re recycling the forgotten eighties.