The Strokes exploded onto the international scene in 2001 with their universally acclaimed debut Is This It. They were lauded for their dedication to old-fashioned songwriting, DIY work ethic and a sound that recalled the best of the Garage Scene from the ’70s. Personally, it just made me want to swap out their CD for The Stooges Raw Power and get the real thing.
You know how a band comes out with a really great song and then you hear a drunk singer at a pub do a cover? The drunk’s version overworks the vocal and stands there oblivious to his own flaws, carrying an arrogant expression on his face like he’s the genius who wrote the song. I know I’m in the minority here, but that’s how I feel Last Nite started out, as a cocky, drunken parody of itself.
It wasn’t until they released Reptillia two years later that I finally appreciated what it was that The Strokes were trying to do, but by then, the Is This It content was irretrievable. Since then, their music achieved a sense of urgency that didn’t disappoint me with an anti-climactic payoff, the effect so much of their previous work had on me. But I am still no Strokes loyalist.
Perhaps this is why I liked Comedown Machine so much. Other reviewers, who look nostalgically at the back catalogue for the New York scenesters, have lamented the album for not proudly bearing the mark of the previous material. It’s certainly a different beast to the earlier albums but one that doesn’t have the dubious quality of Angles or First Impressions of Earth.
Fittingly, as this album has been released more than ten years after the tribute to the ’70s that was their debut, Comedown Machine is a tribute to the ’80s. It’s an eclectic mix of everything that made that decade much loved and laughed at. In the first few surprising moments of the album, Tap Out starts with a Van Halen fake-out that steps aside for a bass line that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gloria Estefan track. Later, we get a tune called One Way Trigger that is so reminiscent of a-Ha’s Take On Me that when you think of the band playing it you see them illustrated in pencil.
Sandwiched between the two is All The Time, a track that does hark back to the first few years of the new millennium when the band made themselves famous. It is absolutely classic Strokes, although its presence here is something of a cruel tease. Because it comes after the initial track, which was a radical deviation from traditional Strokes, All The Time feels like a calming note to tell the diehard fans that everything is ok and that normal service is resumed. But to then follow that with the bouncy, poppy audacity of One Way Trigger is like to bust out of a birthday cake, yell surprise and punch the birthday boy in the face.
But to anyone who isn’t a massive Strokes fan the surprise will be a pleasant one, as listening to All The Time on this album is like looking at an ice cream stand containing 31 exotic flavours and electing to eat the cardboard cup. It’s both odourless, flavourless and completely shown up by the tasty alternatives. The forbidden truth is the original Strokes’ formula is becoming stale with age and weaker with every re-hash. By diversifying the content, The Strokes are keeping interest in their music alive for both the listeners and for themselves.
This isn’t the Stokes album that Strokes fans were hoping for after the damp patch that was Angles. What it is, is a colourful, bright album that in another universe was the soundtrack to an 80’s cop movie set in Miami. Varied, interesting, wonderfully retro and effortlessly cool, this album only disappoints when it retreads the material they are the most familiar with.