I used to travel a lot for work. Way more than I do now. For the last twelve or so years, I’ve worked for British-owned companies; so lots of my trips have been to London. The flight to London is weird in that it’s shorter than you’d think, but you still have a five-hour time difference to deal with when you arrive. I can never get a satisfying sleep on the relatively short flight, so I end up exhausted for a day or two.
My solution has always been to try and relax by listening to music. On one flight towards the end of 2001, I guess, I noticed that Is This It? was one of the selections on the airplane’s entertainment system. I’d heard about the album, but I wasn’t as obsessed with new, mindie music as I am now; so I wasn’t really aware of all of the hype and backlash surrounding The Strokes at the time. I plugged my headphones into the armrest and pressed play. I was sold.
I bought the album when I got back and played it for CoolMom, and it became our obsession that year. Still, when I hear it, Is This It? takes me back to that time: We’d been living in our house for about two years. It was just after CoolMom and I had gotten married, just before we had CoolDaughter #1. It was also just after… …well… It was a time filled with emotion, and The Strokes had produced a New York rock and roll record that still stands as one of my favorites ever.
As I’ve been known to do, I obsessed on The Strokes a little bit after that. I began to see that the judgemental, hip, mindie world — while loving the album — had turned on the band a bit. There were the privileged backgrounds of lead-singer Julian Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. There was the unprecedented (and some supposed undeserved) 5 album contract with RCA. There were the mammoth sales of the record, which are always the kiss of death for mindie street cred. But I loved Is This It? and I still do.
2003’s Room on Fire was a successful follow-up. 2006’s First Impressions of Earth was less successful, but it contained some really solid songs (“Electriccityscape”). Then came a 5-year hiatus, followed by the unloved Angles, which the band seem even to have hated recording. I liked that record, too. “Under Cover of Darkness” and “Taken for a Fool” are really excellent pop rock songs.
Comedown Machine is the fifth and final album required by that big RCA contract. Given the fact that the band have no plans to tour for the record; and given some of the statements that accompanied the release of Angles, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being the last album by the band in its current form. In that sense, it’s a good thing that Comedown Machine is so solid.
Unlike Angles, Casablancas recorded his vocals on Comedown Machine with the rest of the band. His presence seems to have resulted in giving the album some of the 80s new wave feel he loves so much. Opener “Tap Out” features some staccato guitar riffage by Hammond and Valensi along with, like much of the album, a falsetto vocal from Casablancas. The solid one-two punch of singles “All the Time” and “One Way Trigger” contains enough of the old Strokes sound mixed in with the 80s beats to satisfy longtime fans.
I think the biggest change in The Strokes over time has been their increasing tightness as a band. Is This It? featured an endearingly shambling messiness that contrasts with the polished professionalism on songs like “50 50” and “Partners in Crime.” I like both versions of the band.
Like many influential, veteran acts The Strokes do a little cribbing from those they’ve influenced. Casablancas sounds a bit like Ezra Koenig on “Chances” and “Happy Ending,” which sound like they could have come from the catalog of another popular, New York City band who’ve been on the receiving end of their share of mindie backlash.
Comedown Machine is a strong entry from The Strokes. I wouldn’t call it a return to form, since the form is so different now; but if it ends up being the band’s swan song, they’ll have exited on a high. And, honestly, it makes me happy that a band that has meant so much to the sounds and the sights of what we call Indie Rock can show everyone that sometimes it’s OK to believe the hype just a little.
Comedown Machine is currently streaming at Pitchfork Advance and comes out next week on RCA.