Monday, 25 March 2013

The Strokes - Comedown Machine

Nowadays every music fan is familiar with The Strokes story: four sharply dressed New Yorkers reinvent rock n’ roll with debut ‘Is This It?’, follow it up with a lesser facsimile, go experimental for round three with patchy results, bicker, fall out, make solo records and eventually realise they’re stronger together, reconvening for 2011’s ‘Angles, a record which, whilst far from perfect, seemed to at least offer some hope that The Strokes had a viable future. Perhaps this assessment damns with faint praise records which each tended to contain a handful of great songs – I’m thinking the likes of ‘Reptilia’ ‘Heart in a Cage’ and ‘Machu Picchu’ – but they’ve certainly never felt as vital and alive as on their seminal debut.

Shackled to a fair amount of baggage therefore, ‘Comedown Machine’ feels somewhat paradoxical – on one hand it’s a fairly natural successor to both ‘Angles’ and Julian’s solo debut ‘Phrazes for the Young’ yet on the other it’s hamstrung by a sense of jaded ennui normally only experienced by acts stumbling into their third decade.

When they first broke through The Strokes were frequently compared to New York punk godfathers Television yet the quintet have always been highly strung, with none of Tom Verlaine’s crew’s looseness so with a few years hindsight it’s clear a more accurate comparison would be to a different group of dual guitar wielding rockers: seminal new-wavers The Cars. This influence has been present all along: tightly wound guitars, short, sharp songs fusing the best of rock and pop, but more than ever ‘Comedown Machine’ is informed by this sensibility.

It’s a shame therefore that ‘All the Time’ is probably the weakest Strokes lead single to date, though a keen amateur psychologist might find unexpected depths in lines like ‘You’re living a lie, you’re living too fast’ and the fleet-fingered guitar solo does deliver a brief rush. Likewise, diehard fans reacted poorly to ‘One Way Trigger’ when it appeared as a free download a few months ago and, though in the context of the rest of the record it’s somewhat redeemed, the mix of Gameboy bleeps and A-ha style falsetto is hard to stomach. Far better is ‘80’s Comedown Machine’ which rings a ragged, desperate vocal from Julian, coming closest to replicating the full-throated intensity of their debut album whilst rocking the catchiest guitar riff on the record.

‘50/50’s programmed beats and overlaid synth/guitar duplicate the woozy atmosphere of Albert Hammons Jr’s ‘Yours to Keep’ but it’s a tune that never really goes anywhere; one of several moments where Julian has nothing to say and five minutes to say it.

Thankfully ‘Comedown Machine’ recovers on a fine final third that finally feels as if some life has been breathed into tired lungs. ‘Happy Ending’ in particular offers a lean, catchy keyboard and guitars update of their classic sound whilst ‘Call it Fate, Call it Karma’ is their finest genre pastiche – a spooky music hall piano and falsetto waltz that feels as if it’s being beamed in on some cosmic radio.

Why was ‘Comedown Machine’ a group effort rather than a Casablancas solo record? Will they tour it? How many references to Duran Duran is too many? All these questions remain unanswered on a record which many will ultimately find rather unsatisfying.


Max Sefton

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