Why do the Strokes continue to intrigue us?
The band has one great album to its credit; they don’t come much better than 2001’s “Is This It,” which remains one of the premier rock-and-roll documents of the past dozen years. But each subsequent album, from 2003’s likable “Room on Fire” to 2011’s disjointed disaster “Angles,” has proven — emphatically and exponentially — that this is a band with just one major artistic statement to its name.
Whenever the Strokes reappear, as with new album “Comedown Machine,” the default reaction is still excitement accompanied by a chorus of “I hope it’s good!” Some of this is the scourge of nostalgia that’s inescapable in today’s music landscape, even with relatively young bands. But there’s something more. People still root for the Strokes with an enthusiasm that’s way out of line with the quality of the band’s discography.
Why all the good vibes?
The phenomenon is explained in “Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group,” a new book by Washington musician, author and general punk provocateur Ian Svenonius. His how-to guide for forming a band is plenty tongue-in-cheek — the advice is presented through the words of dead rock stars contacted via seance — but he hits on some significant truths.
“Besides fast food, the rock ’n’ roll group is what America is best known for,” Svenonius writes, and “the USA’s primary and arguably greatest cultural export.” He devotes chapters to the critical importance of the elements that define a band — photo, group name, group members, recording — and when the Strokes first burst into the public eye they delivered this complete package, with every box checked.
As Svenonius writes, “the modern group is not only about music. . . . [It] is the descendent of the street gang and has inherited many of those organizations’ conceits,” and it was easy to give in to the idea that this was truly such a group. That togetherness was reflected on “Is This It,” an album of expertly interlocking three-minute jolts that found a very rare balance of efficiency and bluster. And the Strokes seemingly emerged from the gutters of Manhattan, perfectly disheveled, distorted and just the right amount of dangerous. Almost all of the band’s early press featured anecdotes about seeing multiple members out on the town together, emphasizing the unity of the five bandmates.
Simply, the Strokes were the perfect rock-and-roll group, that most American of institutions, emerging as they did from New York in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 with swagger to spare. And though their career since then has been imperfect, nobody has taken over as the nation’s great rock-and-roll group. Vampire Weekend? Too clean. Black Keys? Too few of them. Kings of Leon? Too many reasons to name.
So until another group comes along to claim the crown, we will continue to project our rock group ideals onto the Strokes. Even if the band keeps releasing albums as inconsequential as its latest, “Comedown Machine.” And even if the Strokes barely even sound like a rock band anymore.
“Comedown Machine” continues a transition away from nimble guitars, a workmanlike rhythm section and the disaffected croon of Julian Casablancas in favor of an ’80s-inspired sonic tapestry and Casablancas’s embrace of falsetto — a serious shift for a singer who mined the depths of his gut to howl on “Last Nite.” That squeaky voice is effective on opener “Tap Out” and pops up again on “One Way Trigger,” which can best be described as “Take On Me” reimagined as the Super Mario Bros. theme. It also makes sense, in theory, on “80’s Comedown Machine,” a hallucinatory merry-go-round of a song that aspires to be dreamy but ends up just being drowsy.
That pseudo-title track best exemplifies the album’s lack of urgency, which actually ends up mostly working as a net positive. It’s the band’s first release without a definitive story line behind it— the highly anticipated follow-up, the make-or-break third LP, the big comeback. For the first time, it’s simply the next Strokes album. The band sounds loose, not tense, and if a song such as “80’s Comedown Machine” doesn’t hit its mark, at least it’s not the combination of mismatched fragments that came to define the songs on the band’s last two albums.
If there’s any track here that sounds like “vintage” Strokes, it’s “50/50,” with the dynamic guitar interplay of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., and Casablancas returning to growler mode, complete with a vocal effect that makes it sounds like he’s singing through both clenched teeth and a busted microphone. “All the Time” is also centered around chugging guitars, but it whimpers along, sounding like the first draft of a song Spoon would have quickly discarded.
The band’s new-wave noodlings make the final third of the album entirely skippable, and so while “Comedown Machine” may register as the best Strokes album in a decade, it confirms that expecting further greatness is just wishful thinking. But chances are we’ll keep wishing just the same.