Category Archives: The Strokes
The Strokes – Comedown Machine
However you feel about Angles, there’s no doubt it lowered expectations for the Strokes. The five years that separated First Impressions Of Earth and that album were filled with solo records and side projects, speculation and anticipation. When that record was revealed to be a decent, if unsatisfying, set, the following two-year wait for their next record was weirdly silent. The Strokes were past their prime, the media collectively concluded, and Comedown Machine was released to little fanfare. The Strokes are no longer the best or most talked-about band in the world anymore—far from it—and, as evidenced by this record, it sounds like they agree. Comedown Machine is filled with lyrics about confusion, regret, aging and settling down. And as the title implies, there’s a sense of deflation at work here, the group resigning themselves to the fact that their glory days have passed them. In other words, where Julian Casablancas once implored, “Please don’t slow me down if I’m going too fast,” he now admonishes that “you’re living too fast.” As such, it’s the softest, most contemplative Strokes album yet, one that sometimes sounds like an entirely different band.
Reuniting with Angles producer Gus Oberg, the band continues their ’80s fascination here—something no doubt fostered by Casablancas, whose solo album favored a new-wave, synth bounce—but it’s somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one side, the Strokes are usually sterling revivalists, since they refuse to shed their own voice in service of retro worship. “Tap Out” and the shuffling “Partners In Crime” come up winners, but it’s “One Way Trigger,” with its a-ha-inspired keyboard line and falsetto vocals, that’s the most memorable, mostly because it’s one of the oddest things the group’s ever done. It’s tuneful yet challenging, designed to make fans uncomfortable the way “Juicebox” did back in 2006, though it’s doesn’t reach the furious heights of that track. And that brings me to the other side of the equation. The Strokes fuss and experiment a lot on this album, but they haven’t written a set of songs strong enough to justify their stylistic diversions. Their ’80s fetish ends up dragging the record down on a few occasions, particularly in the second half, yet even the best songs here don’t feel as fresh or as compulsively replayable as the highlights from any other Strokes record. Part of this is the songwriting, yes, but it’s also the band’s new habit of playing as precisely as possible. They’re all still phenomenally talented musicians; it’s just that their airtight, professional arrangements don’t allow for, say, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s guitars to flower into an unexpected duel of solos. It’s a problem compounded by Oberg’s polished production, which, while accentuating some of the hooks, ends up taking the bite out of many of the messier tracks, like the blustery “50/50,” that call out for some room to breathe. Plus, he still makes the odd, unfortunate choice of obscuring Casablancas’ voice in the mix, losing one of the Strokes’ most vital aspects in the process. Sometimes, the band hits it right, creating two great spins on their signature sound on “All The Time” and “Welcome To Japan,” and the risk-taking pays off with the wistful, torchy “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” and the hypnotic “80s Comedown Machine,” which lives up to the promise of First Impressions‘ “Ask Me Anything.” All of the flitting around reveals a band in transition, unsure of what kind of music they want to make going forward. But that’s just making excuses for a record that could, even should, be better than it is. (First Impressions is just as uneven, but there are far more tracks worth returning to on that album.) Despite the resignation on display on Comedown Machine, it doesn’t sound like they’ve given up, so here’s hoping that the Strokes can figure out what works before it’s too late.
The Strokes – Is This It
Although it didn’t have quite the same success or impact, The Strokes’ debut, Is This It, played a similar role in the 2000s that Nevermind did in the ’90s. Like Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Is This It brought mainstream attention to a strain of underground rock, profoundly affecting the direction and attitude of American and British guitar rock for the following decade. The brilliance of the album isn’t that it is visionary—it’s that it sounds startlingly fresh, revitalizing rock mainstays like sex, drugs and the power of the catchy guitar riff. Adopting the effortless New York cool of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and marrying it to CBGBs punk and new wave, the Strokes, on paper, sound like they could get by on image alone. In actuality, Julian Casablancas put his own unique spin on these influences and wrote a supremely satisfying set of songs, each of them teeming with so much sneering wordplay and so many indelible hooks, the album plays like a greatest hits compliation. “Last Nite” has rightfully become a modern rock staple; the supremely melodic “Hard To Explain” and “Someday,” with their instantly memorable guitar lines, are two of the band’s finest moments; the chugging “The Modern Age” and woozy title track propel themselves forward with the airtight rhythm section of bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti, and Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. establish themselves as an astonishing guitar duo on the rampaging closer “Take It Or Leave It.” And though Casablancas largely limits himself to writing about dysfunctional relationships, he has a knack for writing clever, stylish one-liners, which are nearly as vital to the songs as his world-weary, Lou Reed-esque singing, itself one of the most widely imitated vocal styles of the 2000s. Though the Strokes later continued to grow and diversify, they would never again recreate the exuberance of Is This It.
[Note: As a show of respect after the September 11th attacks, the Strokes replaced “New York City Cops” with the nearly-as-excellent “When It Started” on the U.S. edition of the album.]
The Strokes – Angles
Five years is a long time, but it’s even longer in pop music. The last time the Strokes checked in was with 2006’s hit-or-miss First Impressions of Earth, an album that hinted that the Strokes were bored of being the Strokes, even when everybody else was still imitating them. But a lot has changed since then. Whereas stylish, garage and new wave-inspired bands were all the rage in the first half of the 2000s, they have since largely been replaced by reverb-drenched, grandiose groups or genre-busting, electronic and dance-oriented artists. And more than that, the Strokes themselves have changed. Four of the five band members have either released solo or side projects, all of which were distinct from their main group’s work. So, naturally, the songwriting duties were now going to be spread among the group rather than consigned to singer Julian Casablancas like they had been in the past. With all this in mind, some huge questions faced the Strokes and their fourth studio album, Angles: what would the album sound like? Would the band still sound relevant? Could the band overcome the allegedly tense recording sessions to make a solid album?
Well, the bottom line is that Angels is a decent record, no more, no less. On the whole, it’s a tighter and more cohesive listen than First Impressions but its best moments never truly approach the high points of any of the band’s past records. It simply showcases the Strokes doing what they do best: Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s interlocking guitar work, Casablancas’ just-woke-up vocals and the rhythm section of Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti giving the whole thing a propulsive kick. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, and Angles is enjoyable in its own way. “Under Cover Of Darkness” and “Gratisfaction”‘s joyous choruses help make them standouts; Valensi’s “Taken For A Fool” weds tough verses with buoyant hooks, and the fine closer “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” sounds like a lost cut from Room On Fire. Angles goes a little further than just rehash, though, and is as eclectic as the Strokes have ever been. Yet it sometimes has First Impressions of Earth‘s tendency to overcomplicate the songs, so for every interesting experiment like Fraiture’s sinister “You’re So Right,” there is the ponderous “Games,” which loses itself in its synth-y murk. Also, on past albums, Casablancas’ lyrics have always provided memorable lines that help the songs stick in the mind. And while that remains the case here for the most past, his vocals are oddly buried in the mix, often obscuring his words and making it harder to latch onto a couple of songs, even after repeated spins. Those who aren’t satisfied with Angles may take heart that the band reportedly doesn’t seem satisfied with this record either. If they think they have a better album in them, then they can go right ahead. For now, though, the Strokes are back, and even if they aren’t changing it this time, the world is a better place for it.
The Strokes – First Impressions Of Earth
Room On Fire, despite its many virtues and subtle expansions of their sound, simply played it a bit too closely to The Strokes’ debut for some fans. It seems the band felt the same way, overhauling their sound for their third album First Impressions Of Earth, released peculiarly within the first few days of 2006. Running at nearly the combined length of their previous two albums, First Impressions undoubtedly reaches further sonically than the Strokes ever have before, attempting everything from a synth-based ballad (“Ask Me Anything”) to some Pogues-esque wooziness (“15 Minutes”). Even further distancing the album from the Strokes’ past work is David Kahne’s (relatively) bright and slick production, replacing Gordon Raphael rough-around-the-edges sound.
So why is First Impressions of Earth the Strokes’ worst long-player to date? The songs, plain and simple. Whereas, in the past, The Strokes excelled at crafting memorable pop songs even when they explored other genres on Room On Fire, here they are self-indulgent, experimenting with new sounds that too often leave little impact. Same goes for Julian Casablancas’ lyrics. He used to write lyrics that were distinctive even if they had more style than substance (and what are the Strokes, if not stylish?). However, now he has broadened his palette, writing a bit more cryptically about topics other than dysfunctional relationships but often not being able to pull it off. “Ask Me Anything”‘s gentle synth melody would work much better if Casablancas didn’t mindlessly repeat “I’ve got nothing to say” until we have no choice but to believe him, but it’s better than “Killing Lies” which drones on without doing much interesting at all. When the music and lyrics do work, the Strokes sound as good as they ever were. “Juicebox” works a modified Peter Gunn theme riff into a grungy rocker with a soaring bridge; “You Only Live Once” is as bright and fun as the band ever was. Meanwhile, “Ize Of The World” and “Red Light” expand upon the Strokes past work in satisfying ways. Even First Impressions Of Earth‘s most indulgent valleys entertain in spurts (“Vision of Division”‘s alternating lyrical scheme, for instance), but overall the album is not consistent or cohesive enough to be considered anything than an occasionally rewarding misstep.