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 – 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.
Albert Hammond, Jr. – Yours To Keep
After the Strokes’ overwrought third album, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, the band decided to take a break from the nearly five to six years of constant touring and recording to rejuvenate. Of course, this did not turn out to be entirely true as later in 2006, rhythm and occasional lead guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. released Yours To Keep, a surprising and unexpected entry to the Strokes’ canon. To be clear, though, Hammond’s music is far removed from the sound of his day job; a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Well…All Right” may give one an idea of the direction he heads on this album. Hammond trades in sunny pop where even when things can get a little claustrophobic such as on “Scared” (“I know you’re still there because you’re scared that you’ll lose everybody”), there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Much of this has to do with Hammond’s voice as it does with his charming, unaffected melodies. His sweet, genuine delivery gives his lyrics a different tone than the Strokes, even if a few of the lines sound like Julian Casablancas could have written them. Elsewhere, album opener “Cartoon Music For Superheroes”, a song that sounds like an outtake from Pet Sounds and “Hard To Live In The City”‘s brass band closer show off the album’s unpretentious eclecticism. Yours To Keep is an unexpected surprise that will most likely win over many fans who do not find room in their taste for the Strokes.