Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Strokes launch tide of experimentation on Comedown Machine

It's no secret The Strokes have been on a downward spiral since the release of their landmark 2001 debut, Is This It. The recording sessions for their previous album, 2011's Angles, didn't do much to reverse the trend. Singer Julian Casablancas detached himself from the band and forced key songwriting duties onto other members of the band.

His intent was to develop a more democratic process, although all it really created was political gridlock. Having to write and record their parts without a singer present gave the band fits, and led guitarist Nick Valensi to complain bitterly about the whole affair.

If nothing else, the sessions for Comedown Machine seem to have served as a necessary panacea. The songs here have more room to breathe, and feel more organic. The 80s pop pastiche of Angles still serves as a motivating influence, but it no longer feels like they're trying to cram it in to places it doesn't fit. Rather, Comedown Machine sees the band experimenting with a variety of different sounds and approaches, which prevents repetition, a problem they didn't always do the best job of addressing on previous albums.

Big, catchy choruses are one thing that most songs have in common with one another. "Welcome to Japan" is hot and sweaty, sounding like the soundtrack to pedaling an exercise bike in the 80s. "All the Time," meanwhile, could have been Room on Fire material, and should satisfy fans of their old sound.

Following "All the Time," however, is a striking change of pace with "One Way Trigger," a shimmering keyboard focused track which is carried by Casablancas's high, near falsetto vocal. It's a good song, but it's jarring moving into this track from "All the Time," and is the most striking example of the album's lack of cohesion. Elsewhere, they pull off a tearjerker on "80s Comedown Machine," which is accented by a beautiful string section. This proceeds directly into the raucous rocker "50/50," the most frenetic song they've done since "Juicebox."

Along the way, there are more attempts to refine their 80s sound. "Chances" features subtle electronic keyboard backing, but the tune is much too tepid too be a major winner. More successful is album opener "Tap Out," which breathes much needed life into the formula first explored on Angles. The verse melody sounds similar to Yeasayer, another band well known for an 80s pop affinity, but they make the song their own with the main hook. One can easily picture Casablancas wearing his dark shades, capturing the rich feel of the post punk tradition.

In terms of progression, however, closer "Call it Fate Call it Karma," may be the band's most progressive song to date. It presents itself as a period piece; the soft sound of the piano, coupled with the intentionally crackly background hiss brings to mind a lounge jazz piece from the 20s or 30s. Julian's soft croon puts the finishing touches on the image The Strokes paint in your mind.

Comedown Machine expands upon the direction first hinted at on Angles, but is more successful in virtually every way. The album's main caveat is that it tends to lack cohesion or a sense of a central theme; it sounds more like a hodgepodge collection of songs by a band still striving to reinvent their sound. Yet there are more than a few quality cuts here that span a diverse spectrum, and that's enough to override its flow issues.

Now over a decade removed from the cries of saviors of rock and roll, no one is expecting the Strokes to compare to the Almighty, but Comedown Machine should suit anyone well who are just looking for the band to put out something respectable.

Score: 82/100
See also: The Strokes - Angles review

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