Comedown Machine Is Anything But

I have many philosophies about music and most border on the pretentious. But they seem to work for me, overall, and I’d like to share two of these with you now. They’re relevant, so stay with me.

Philosophy #1. Any band that wins a Grammy, or collects a ton of national and/or international accolades for a particular album (especially a debut) is doomed to at least a decade of sub-par output and is not worth my time anymore.

Philosophy #2. Any band that gets slagged off in the reviews section of Rolling Stone magazine is worth at least a cursory listen. When I picture what I believe to be your typical RS reviewer, I see some 60 year old dude in a torn Miles Davis or Steel Wheels concert T-Shirt, sucking on a clove cigarette with a sickening little slit of a smile adorning his unshaven face. But that’s just me.

comedown machineWhen The Strokes released Is This It at the dawn of the new century I must admit I was a tad smitten with their Velvet Underground homage and New Yawk swagger. The album was good, but I submit that it wasn’t nearly as good as everyone remembers. It was just ‘OK’. Top 500 of all time category, maybe, but definitely not top 50-100 as most list makers would have you believe. ITI? was nominated for, and won in most cases, a whole buttload of awards, and then the band promptly, and predictably,  dropped the ball, succumbing to the second album syndrome that afflicts most bands since the ‘90’s (curiously, bands prior to the ‘90’s didn’t have a problem coming up with new stuff for their sophomore albums in most cases—wonder why?). The answer to Is This It was a resounding, “Why, yes, I believe it is.”

Since I only had a cursory interest in The Strokes each new release was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and a whispered ‘MEH’. Then, for some bizarre reason, I chanced upon a Rolling Stone review for their newest one, 2013’s Comedown Machine. RS gave it a fairly terrible review, which as I state in rule #2 is usually reason enough for me to give an album a try, but the overwhelming comments following the review are what really piqued my interest. They were, almost unanimously, positive. I’ll trust the general public over an RS critic any day of the week, especially one that writes like this guy does:

Comedown Machine is a very nice album. Now let me tell you why.

One particularly oft-repeated claim of the naysayer is that this LP sounded “too much” like jaunty frontman Julian Casablancas’ solo work. And I will concede that about half the tracks do veer closer to his New Wave-inflected Phrazes For The Young than to any existing Strokes release. But I also find the sound to gel very nicely here, specifically in the spot-on, best-part-of-the-80s melodies that populate tracks like “Slow Animals”, and the ripcord-tight disco funk cementing opener “Tap Out”. For what it’s worth, I think “Tap Out” makes a strong case for Best Strokes Song Since The Last Time Most People Genuinely Cared About The Strokes Back In Late 2003. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. trade pricklingly precise guitar licks over the sexiest of 70s-tinged grooves, swashing an ample backdrop for Julian to lay down an absolute earworm of a multi-hook melody— “Decide my past, define my life / Don’t ask questions cause I don’t know why” —spitfire lyrics practically aimed point-blank at the slew of modern critics who have been none too kind to the band’s more recent releases.

As a whole, I found this album to be the band’s most cohesive & listenable since, well, since Room On Fire. There’s tons of freaked-out genre cross-pollination at play here, from ragged punk on “50/50″ to sleek 80s power-ballad on “Chances” to the rainy-day jazz-era closing croon “Call It Fate Call It Karma”. Yet in the hands of such virtuoso musicians, I never felt any of it as sounding forced or weak. And all is delivered in a sort of vintage, offhand production style, almost as an homage to that killer garage-pop sound that made the Strokes a “classic” band in the first place. Even the haters got an idiotic grin on their face during “Welcome To Japan” upon hearing Jules slip in the zinger, “What kind of a****** drives a Lotus?” In fact, in a roundabout way, taking all the band’s past work into account, Comedown Machine somehow sounds more like the Strokes, or a better, more versatile version of them, than ever before.

After previewing online, then purchasing the album and listening multiple times, I am going to say the above is spot-on. It is a new wave album from the ‘80’s, and I mean that in a positive way. It sounds like this band is having fun, but it also sounds like they’re in quite the melancholic mood and the overall vibe of album backs me up. It’s also, by today’s standards, a short album at barely 40 minutes in length, but to me it is the perfect running time.

All in all, a solid, driving, thoughtful, highly enjoyable album by a band you may or may not have written off over a decade ago. It doesn’t sound much like the debut, but to my ears that is no bad thing.