Tuesday, May 7

The Strokes: Come On Down To The Machine

There's a lot to say about The Strokes, but not a lot that hasn't already been said. Steven Hyden's recent piece about the band's career arc as it leads to their new and final album bespeaks most of the cultural weight that accompanies everything these guys put on vinyl. All of that has been rehashed (well, re-re-rehashed) as their fifth and final album with RCA entitled Comedown Machine has recently released, not with a media bang but a whimper.

The Strokes are important and for many reasons. But one thing about their long and storied career that warrants some revisiting is their ingenuity. This is an aspect of their songwriting that gets often overlooked, mostly because the reason they got so damn big to begin with has a lot more to do with what the band meant to so many people.

Myself included.

When I was 17, I saw The Strokes at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC. In retrospect, this was one of the weirdest shows I've ever attended (by now I've seen a few). The lineup: The Mooney Suzuki, Jimmy Fallon, and The Strokes. Up first, The - wait... Jimmy Fallon?

Yup, the One, True King of videogames in the "late night" space was once a temporary musician. You no doubt remember his "hit," "Idiot Boyfriend," that of the faux-disco bassline and nail-biting falsetto. Turns out the guy had an entire album of material, which he unloaded on the young and tragically-hip audience between comedy bits concerning a Troll doll. It seemed ill-timed and even iller-conceived.

The Mooney Suzuki, on the other hand, were just ill. They rocked. They killed it. They [something so hip that it's not quite in style yet, but rest assured, it's a good thing]. I learned about and loved a new band after that day.

But The Strokes took the stage following Fallon's fallibility and I didn't know what to expect. I was so fucking nervous. I really LIKED Is This It, but I was young and couldn't have told you why. If nothing else, the album was different -- pithy, solid, and steadier than Justin Timberlake's SNL career. It had swagger before people were hashtagging it, but swagger of a different sort -- the kind where you don't realize you even have any.

That's a lie, of course. The Strokes were well aware of their image and presentation. But my hormone-ified high school peabrain couldn't quite process all the layers upon layers and I just went along for the ride.

That concert was revelatory for me, although I didn't even realize it until years later. It was part of my musical evolution - in which I graduated from being a ska kid to a rock snob to a lover of just about everything. This would mark that first transition: from rudeboy to rockist. It was finally starting to feel official, although it wouldn't solidify until I had my mind effectively "blown" by a one-hitter and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme.

The Strokes remained a thread throughout it all, though. I picked up Room on Fire when it dropped and I loved it. While is sounds redundant, Room on Fire was one of those albums that grew on me the more time I spent with it (a la Radiohead's Hail to the Thief). But nonetheless, they still had my attention.

I may even be the one person in the world who puts First Impressions of Earth on a pedestal. It doesn't hit every note they were shooting for and it's a bit disorganized to be sure (You Only Live Once + Ask Me Anything + Red Light = UM WUT STAHP), but it was also several steps into bold new territory -- certainly farther than I expected them to traverse based on the baby steps between their first two albums.

First Impressions is what I'm talking about when I say The Strokes were ingenious. The opening track takes their trademark tightened rudiments and mechanics, then hyper-refines it like three drum machines in a musical playground. The Strokes then follow that up with a dirty little bassline ("Juicebox") pulled straight from Saturday Morning Cartoons. The album title is remarkably applicable; in fourteen tracks, The Strokes looked up from their $300 jeans and realized there's a whole wide world out there. They set out to engage with it - to remarkable results. This sometimes-uplifting, sometimes-manic depressive, sometimes-alcoholic, and sometimes-nuclear album represents the one thing The Strokes weren't previously ready to present: something risky.

So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when, after a hiatus, Angles was released. It was aggressive, but only because of where they had previously been and their position in the pop music pantheon. Ah, yes - that faded, crumbling structure of emotional antiquity, upon which frescos and busts are built for those who stood the test of time and emerged with stories to tell. The goddamned hipsters built one out of cardboard and were shocked when it didn't look the same after a couple harsh winters.

The Strokes, in all their wisdom, knew their cultural impact was bound for collapse, so they changed it up -- a lot. And it sucked. Oh well. Julian Casablancas notoriously mailed it in (literally - he didn't step foot in the same studio as the rest of the band) and released a solo album (Phrazes For The Young) that some see as a truer Strokes album than this garbage. Then again, some aforementioned journalists of much greater clout claim Angles as their favorite album. So who am I to judge, really?

Then again, who are any of us? (I promise to avoid general musings on the merit of criticism here) I listened to Comedown Machine deeply mired in that state of critical confusion and I emerged a reasonably satisfied fan. This isn't an album that will have you rediscovering your youthful edge. Gone are The Strokes of old, but gone, too, are the anxieties that come with that sea change. Angles was too much, too fast for the band, built from a desperate need to un-hibernate and make something different. Now, as the band returns closer to the mean, the results are much more substantial.

Doing a track breakdown of Comedown Machine feels irrelevant. Sure, some stand out ("Tap Out," "50/50") and some are forgettable ("Partners In Crime," "Happy Ending"), but this is an article about artistic trajectory, dammit, so here's my media-shattering declaration: The Strokes still have "it." But what's changed is what that "it" is. If you're still looking for attitude-driven, uber-hip hazy teenage anthems, you need to stop listening to this band. Hell, you should have stopped listening to them around their third album. Just as First Impressions marked the end of what brought them into this world, it was also the album that propelled them into outer space. They saw some cool shit up there and wrote about it. Now they've finally come back to Earth. Via a spaceship of some sort. A machine. A...... comedown....... machine.


I'll finish by echoing Hyden's closing sentiments. The Strokes are in a really good spot right now. They've shed the weight of pop cultural pressure with the silent release of their last RCA album and find themselves in the role of an aging-but-talented Unrestricted Free Agent. If they don't find themselves a smaller label that encourages their newfound tempered experimentation, they're doing themselves and their fans a major disservice. It's murky territory and there's no guarantee they'll embrace the adventure together. But at least now we all know that The Strokes can find their way out of a storm.

No comments:

Post a Comment