One of the challenges of evaluating albums by bands who have a history is taking that context away and seeing the work for what it is. Starting with This Is It in 2001, The Strokes developed a reputation for playing straightforward rock that compromised nothing to deliver an old-school vibe. With that in mind, to say that the group’s latest effort, Comedown Machine, owes a great debt to dance and New Wave music would be heresy.
Here’s the thing: I’ve missed out on The Strokes. Never listened to them, save for playing “Reptilia” on Guitar Hero 3. By somehow avoiding one of the most praised rock bands of the last decade, I’ve been given the opportunity to have a bias-free opinion of the record, which should be the case for every album, but clearly is not, since everything U2, Bruce Springsteen, and the like come out with nowadays is guaranteed at least four stars from Rolling Stone.
Like I mentioned, The Strokes have been praised for its relatively stripped down approach to music-making, and I’ll join in on that cheer: In an age where pitch correction is second nature, it’s nice to see a band truly getting by on its own merits. On the other hand, there’s only so much that can be done with drums and guitars before it gets old, so for a group like The Strokes, it’s key to incorporate other sounds and styles with their own without compromising their songwriting craft and leaning on gimmicks.
Based on Comedown Machine, my first real experience with the group, The Strokes are a bunch of blokes who can craft catchy, sonically diverse tunes while hitting few roadblocks, although there are a couple. In an album that sees a band pushing the boundaries of their creativity, though, these stumbles, which are very slight, are a sign of bravery and innovation.
The finest example is “Call It Fate, Call It Karma.” Album-closing songs have a different set of expectations than their album-opening and -middling peers: If they’re great, it’s a wonderful way to close out the album. If that’s not the case, it’s easy to dismiss it as something extra tacked on for whatever reason unknown to us.
Then again, this is easily the most interesting song on the album: It starts out as a clear homage to “Riders on The Storm,” but Julian Casablanca’s vocals and chorus, if you want to call it that, evoke imagery of 50’s girl pop groups. Although somewhat mystifying or alienating on first listen, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is the boldest statement on Comedown Machine. It’s the album’s black sheep, a strange amalgamation of yesteryear influences, and after a few plays, it’s oddly hypnotizing.
The songs that end up as clear winners are the danceable party starters like opening track “Tap Out.” The guitar wailing in the opening seconds tries to pull the wool over our eyes, leading us to believe we have a ’70s four-piece rock band album on our hands, but in reality, the song is what happens when you try to make dance music with rock and roll instrumentation.
For a record with such vanilla artwork, there is so much going on under the surface. Flashes of cut-and-dry rock, dance-punk, New Wave and atmospheric ambiance take their turns in the spotlight, sometimes sharing the stage.
Here’s a thought: perhaps the cover is plain because that’s how the band sees this record. It’s eclectic, but that’s who they are. The risqué cover of This Is It shares the shock factor of the ‘70s rock they tried to replicate. Their last album, 2011’s Angles, was supposedly another departure for the group, an exercise in genre-hopping, and the busy, colorful art shows how off-the-wall they believed themselves to be.
Now, as their sense of identity is focusing itself, The Strokes realize who they are as a group: a band that does whatever it wants, whether that’s play straight-up rock, strange, rock-rooted experimentation, or quirky keyboard music with falsetto that quickly grows on you (see “One Way Trigger”). Either way, they’re just being themselves: As the cover states, they are The Strokes, and their latest album is Comedown Machine. I'm late to the party, but it's nice to finally meet them.