(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Recording review - Strokes, Comedown Machine (2013)

Sloppy pastiches brings down the band

Nobody wants to be typecast. After a band has a couple of albums under their belt, it’s appropriate for them to develop and try new ideas. If the changes are too big or sudden, they may alienate some of their original fans, but an evolving artistic vision is vital for creating fresh inspiration. Dylan went electric, Wilco abandoned their Americana roots and Radiohead drifted into abstract electronic sounds. Each one challenged their audience to follow as they reframed their music. So, kudos to the Strokes for not trying to recreate Is This It (2001) all over again. But where is their creative compass pointing now? Unfortunately, it’s aimed at “sloppy pastiche”. Rather than charting a new musical direction, Comedown Machine is a mish-mash of derivative, retro references. They borrow bits of Radiohead, a-ha, Flaming Lips and others, but lack the conviction to forge the eclectic mass into a coherent statement. In the turbulent wake of their last release, Angles (2011), the Strokes decided to work together in the studio, but it still feels like they’re fighting one another.

Despite the album’s lack of a musical center, some of the songs manage to stand out a little. The two strongest are baby steps away from their home base. The solid punch of “All The Time” sets a tight beat, drawing on the band’s roots. The interplay between the two guitars pits staccato chop against arpeggiated phrases. Locking into the album’s ‘80s aesthetic, the fluid guitar solo avoids self-indulgence, leading straight back into the chorus. Lead singer Julian Casablancas also stays in his lower register, saving his newly discovered falsetto for the other tracks. The riff-driven “80s Comedown Machine” falls into the same slot and the band happily runs with the headlong pace. But the next most interesting track strays further outside the band’s comfort zone. “Welcome to Japan” channels Beck’s stylized fake-funk. The disco bass line and ska-flavored chop-beat emphasis positions the tune as a contender for the next Grand Theft Auto game or maybe an action movie soundtrack. It’s a fun song with catchy, ironic lyrics:
I didn’t want to notice
I didn’t know the gun was loaded
I didn’t really know this
What kind of asshole drives a Lotus? 
Intriguing as the track is, it’s a sonic outlier on the album, although it’s still closer to the median than the jazzy dream-pop of “Call It Fate, Call It Karma”.

If “Welcome to Japan” owes a debt to Beck, “One Way Trigger” ought to split its royalty checks. The keyboard melody – or is it just a brittle guitar emulation? – inverts the signature line from a-ha’s “Take On Me”. Worse, the first chorus blatantly appropriates Radiohead; the melodic reference to “Karma Police” is pretty obvious, despite being sped up to fit the up-tempo pop. It’s no surprise when Casablancas pulls out his best Thom Yorke falsetto on the tag line, “Settle down, out of town/ Find a dream, shut it down.” After that, every high vocal seems to evoke Yorke, even if the music strays from Radiohead territory. The worst thing about “One Way Trigger” is that it kicks off a game of I-Spy, where every tune has a set of references hidden in plain sight. “50 50” evokes a taste of Psychedelic Furs crossed with New Order. “Partners in Crime” borrows synthesizer washes and slapback vocal echo from the Flaming Lips’ more recent pop explorations, before the chorus reworks Phoenix. But in the absence of a strong personality, the game grows old quickly.

If there’s a handle here to be found, it’s a watered-down synth-pop. But the genre isn’t nearly as important as the attitude. It’s okay that the Strokes have deserted the simple rock sound of Is This It; the problem is that they’ve lost their immediacy and raw energy. They don’t seem to care much about these songs and I don’t see why we should either.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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