The Strokes, 'Comedown Machine' (RCA)

6
Comedown Machine
Critical Mass
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Label: RCA

by Keith Harris

Nobody much asks what the Strokes will do next anymore. ("No search results found for 'What will the Strokes do next?'" Evidence!) So when "One Way Trigger" electro-spasmed into earbuds in January, daring us not to call it an a-ha tribute (a dare this review will not be the first to accept), its boundless synth-pep and ripe falsetto rang with surprising defiance. Add an ironically hype-deflating wink of an album title, and clearly these guys were inviting everyone to have strong opinions about them once more.

Not so fast. We happy survivors of the Great Strokes Debates of '01 may fondly reminisce over the youthful energy dissipated in the quest to determine, with absolute certainty, whether these guys were sexy geniuses saving rock'n'roll or derivative, affluent brats embalming it. But we won't get fooled again, and neither will you. Sure, professional outrage-trawlers dutifully scrounged up a handful of perfunctorily unenthusiastic Tweets about fans' "disappointment" over the band's "new direction." (Can you imagine if Twitter had been around before Is This It?) Even the British, their weird investment in the Strokes' vitality undaunted, seemed hesitant about putting forth a definitive take on Comedown Machine.

Here's what's what: A scuffed-up but fine-tuned power-pop band that's never been less than the sum of its influences casts its net wider, or maybe just into different waters. Album opener "Tap Out" head-fakes you with a guitar-wank eruption before prematurely giving way to a synthy groove that's not exactly Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal," but exudes Bad vibes regardless. Then the snares on "80s Comedown Machine" echo Prince-like into infinity, while its faux-classical synthesizer arpeggios could be the work of someone who's decided to recreate Asia album filler without ever actually listening to Asia. "Happy Ending" sounds a little like Madonna's "Holiday." And so on.

That comparison-clogged rundown may resemble, at least superficially, the influence-checking reviews of Is This It, but the hype-laden lads who once publicly misassembled shards of their favorite music are now seasoned pros who flex their mastery of genres and eras. So far, so good. And yet, rather than give us a full album of "The Strokes Misremember the '80s," the band falls back repeatedly on self-imitation. Lead single "All the Time" rocks dutifully enough, providing an ace showcase for Nick Valensi's continuing ability to tweeze a melodically condensed solo into a song like a ship into a bottle. (In another narrative, he'd sign as a session player with Dr. Luke and juice up Ke$ha singles, or maybe just go Nashville.) But as a sop to those who demand their Strokes more Strokes-like, it's a pulled punch, and one of several here.

The burden of making some sense of all this falls upon the capably slumped shoulders of Julian Casablancas, whose voice does rise to the occasion by at least an octave. He's never been decadent enough to fully explore the slavering id his Iggy-like baritone called for, and when he toyed with his similarity to the Human League's Phil Oakey on his 2009 solo record Phrazes for the Young he couldn't quite convince himself that his constitutional ennui had existential import. But the falsetto he flaunts on Comedown Machine proudly proclaims, "I feel!" And maybe he does.

The mundane romantic negotiations that Casablancas once heroically refused to work himself up over now leave him frantic and harried. But from "We don't have to know each other's name" to "I'll play your game" to "You don't have to try so hard," the married dad sounds like he's been reduced to playacting. When he gets off a line like "What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?" his growl can still suggest "I've seen it all before, baby." Except now that "it" seems to refer to Netflix Instant's current selections.

The Strokes' place in history would have been secure even had Is This It really been it. Not for bringing rock back: Jack White didn't need their help (though the Vines did), and a post-collegiate groundswell seeking more age-appropriate lust targets than boy bands — and/or more urbane guitar anthems than nü-metal had to offer — would have satisfied their desires somehow. No, what mattered about this band was how their fans' outscaled enthusiasm instigated free-floating pot shots: The Strokes' ascendance was when we all decided how we would argue about dumb shit online.

So what hotly disputed cultural object will strike today's third-graders as quaintly no-big-deal a dozen years from now? Girls? Zooey Deschanel? Yeah, something on TV, probably. No mere rock band, for sure; certainly not this mere rock-band album. Some people will like these songs very much. Others will not. If either camp makes a concerted effort to convince the other, their interactions will be buried deep in the recesses of the Internet. And yet, in it's small way, Comedown Machine changed the world. Once the world contained four full-length Strokes albums. Now it has five.

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