The Strokes’ massively successfully debut “Is This It” in 2001has left them in a bit of a precarious position since. “Is This It” had such a distinct impact on rock music in the early 2000s and made The Strokes such a name-brand of modern indie rock that the band has had little chance to escape from the album’s giant shadow since. Each Strokes release inevitably brings about a comparison to their debut, along with think-pieces on topics ranging from how The Strokes have changed, what they mean to rock now, why they haven’t become bigger stars and so on. It comes to a point that it can be easy to forget about the element that is at the center of all this discussion: the music.
The same conversations have already percolated enough on The Strokes’ newest release, “Comedown Machine,” to again almost drown out the music. There was the discussion of how this was the last album on the band’s RCA contract (a fact played at by the cover art) and possibly last album all together. There was much written on the fact that Julian Casablancas was back recording in the studio with the band after working with them only through email on their previous release “Angles,” a controversy in its own right at the time. There were even music blogs and magazines taking note of how little press the band did before the new album’s release. All of this, again, managed to table discussion of the actual album. Which, if viewed in a vacuum, void of the hype that comes along with any Strokes’ release, is a solid, though slightly inconsistent album.
The album’s opening track “Tap Out” opens with a quick guitar riff that is rich with the gritty rock sound The Strokes are known for. This riff, unfortunately, lasts about five seconds before giving way to a funky drum pattern and atmospheric guitars that sound 80s enough to evoke images of Don Johnson cruising the Miami coast in a speed boat. It is this constant and dramatic shift between The Strokes’ original style of rock and 80s-style new wave that make listening to the album a jarring, though entertaining experience.
“All the Time,” the second track, is the song that would fit in most seamlessly with the rest of “Is This It,” carrying the lo-fi rock style with the panache of Casablancas lyrics, which yell out “you’re living a lie, you’re living too fast” in the chorus.
“All the Time” leads into “One Way Trigger,” again illuminating the hodgepodge nature of the entire album. “One Way Trigger” shifts the album from the early 2000s rock back into 80s new wave, with Casablancas (he of the famed low, often monotone-sounding voice) shifting into falsetto. The unexpected falsetto is set against a keyboard melody that sounds straight out an electronic preset. The whole thing is a bit obscure.
But then suddenly we’re back to the 2000s a track later with “Welcome to Japan,” though perhaps a slight bit of Casablancas love for new wave and focus on atmosphere managed to sneak in. The song is a highlight of the album, with the most Strokes-like chorus one can imagine: Casablancas drolly singing “what kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”
Casablancas already showed fans his love for new wave with his 2009 solo project “Phrazes For the Young,” but has brought band members Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi (guitars), Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Fabrizio Moretti (drums) into the act on “Comedown Machine” far more than on “Angles.” Aside from “One Way Trigger,” “80s Comedown Machine,” “Slow Animals” and “Happy Ending” all are ripe with the new wave sound heard on the album opener. The latter of the group is the strongest, with a catchy chorus and rapid fire guitar riffs set against a snappy drumbeat.
The majority of original Strokes fans will lean toward the second half of the album, where songs like “Welcome To Japan,” “50/50,” and “Partners in Crime” harken back to the sound that helped The Strokes explode onto the rock scene years earlier. “Partners in Crime” should be a favorite of any Strokes purist, with an upbeat tempo and garage rock aesthetic capped off by a guitar solo from Hammond.
The final song of the album “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is one that is sure to be divisive. It carries a style that The Strokes have never attempted to even go near, with a slow paced, instrumentally stripped down sound that requires Casablancas to sing falsetto throughout. It’s a daring attempt at a new sound for the band, but unfortunately not a particularly good one. It’s a bad note to leave the album on and may have been better left as a bonus cut.
“Comedown Machine” is far from perfect. It carries inconsistencies and missteps, which, if this truly is the last we hear from the band, encapsulate well the career of a band that seemed perpetually on the cusp of superstardom. But just because it doesn’t live up to the never-ending expectations birthed from “Is This It” doesn’t mean the album is not worth a listen. It is an entertaining, diverse album worth at least a pick-up, even if only for the sake of nostalgia.