Monday, March 25, 2013

album review: 'comedown machine' by the strokes

It's the dream of every artist to make it big, for their work to be widely experienced and acclaimed by the masses, to be recognized for its greatness. It's not just that you're creating art for the sake of the art, but that the art can be experienced and enjoyed on such a wide scale that you might be able to attain that cultural paradigm shift.

So what happens when the first album you release is your big break? Right out of the gate, you hit a home run so powerful that you become widely acclaimed by the industry, the critics, and the public alike. You can hardly believe it, because not only has success come, it has come hot and fast off of your first album. All of a sudden, magazines and critics are hailing your album as a masterpiece, and that your act is the start of a new movement that  will resurrect not just your genre, but rock music in its entirety!

And then comes the terrible, terrible question, the question that comes the second you consider making another album: how the hell can you follow that?

That's the question that's plagued the indie rock band The Strokes ever since they struck it huge with Is This It, their mega-successful debut that definitely deserves the majority of the praise it gets. It was tightly written, superbly arranged, and featured some of the most solid and rhythmic electric guitar I've heard in a long time. The Strokes had a definite gift for melody, and fused with main singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas' 'teenager-in-New-York' sensibilities, it was a perfect summer smash. And combined with the success of The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Verve around the same time, it was no surprise when critics began proclaiming that The Strokes were the start of a new movement to 'save' rock, bring it back to its simpler roots in the 70s garage traditions. The post-grunge dreck of the late 90s and early 2000s was about to be swept away, replaced by a new explosion of rock...

...and it didn't happen. Post-grunge remained stubbornly implacable, only beginning to fall away as the pop-rock boom of the mid-2000s elbowed its way in. The Hives and The Verve never managed to hold onto their momentum, and most of the indie acts that gained popularity in the wake of this 'rock revolution' only managed a fraction of a breakthrough in 2004 (see my review of The Killers' 2012 album Battle Born for details). The White Stripes (arguably the most interesting of the acts), lasted a little longer before disbanding, leaving behind six mostly solid albums and Jack White's intriguing solo efforts, but nothing close to the success they were promised. 

This leaves The Strokes, one of the peculiar musical acts that has always seemed to sit in the shadows of their magnificent debut. It's honestly a bit depressing, really - Is This It was so goddamned great that it would take some genuine genius to effectively follow it up, not to mention top-notch songwriting. And for a second, when The Strokes delivered their follow-up album Room On Fire, most people thought their success was assured. Sure, it wasn't quite as polished and focused as Is This It, but that was to be expected with a sophomore album, with the band exploring their sound and trying new things. But the first evidence of the problem was here: the album sounded a bit too much like Is This It, and the songwriting hadn't quite advanced much either. There were exceptions ('Reptilia'), but overall, it was hard not to see The Strokes just sticking a bit too close to their working formula.

But then they released their third album First Impressions of Earth, and here was where the big problems with The Strokes started to come out. For starters, their sound was evolving, but their material lacked the precise control and tightness of their previous work, instead slathering distortion effects over only decent guitar work. But on even their better songs, the real problem became Julian Casablancas, the increasingly punchable face of the band - mainly because while the band was evolving, he certainly wasn't. The vocals were never the most essential thing on albums by The Strokes, but with their greater emphasis on First Impressions of Earth, Casablancas' caterwauling started to become a little insufferable. More problematic was the fact the songwriting just wasn't getting better, still feeling clumsy and lacking in focus, and it was fast becoming clear that Julian Casablancas really didn't have anything interesting to say.

So after taking five years off, The Strokes came back with Angles, their fourth album and by far their strangest - and I don't mean strange in the good way. According to sources inside the band, the recording was troubled, and it definitely does come across in the music. Casablancas apparently recorded all of his vocals separate from the rest of the band, and the tonal differences between his material and that of the rest of The Strokes is jarring. I can pinpoint three definite problems on Angles: the tonal shifts within songs are often incoherent and frustrating, the songwriting still isn't very good, and Julian Casablancas decided he wanted to add autotune to his singing, where it doesn't fit with the production at all. And really, it's a strength of the rest of the band that despite all of this, Angles actually turned out to be a decent album. 

But the problems that plagued their last album hadn't been solved - in fact, even more problems had cropped up, and when I heard The Strokes were coming back with another album (and a godawful album cover to boot), I was uneasy. Could The Strokes pull something together here?

They didn't. And as much as I hate to say this, it's the truth: Comedown Machine is by far The Strokes' worst album. 

Which is to say the album isn't bad, per se, because there's still enough good stuff to make Comedown Machine at least passable. The instrumentation is still solid across the board, they show proficiency and style with a wide variety of artistic flourishes (for the most part - I'll come back to this), and the band still manages to put together some consistently good tracks. Hell, I'd argue '80s Comedown Machine' (easily the best track on this album) is probably the best song The Strokes have written in a decade - it's this album's 'Reptilia' with driving and memorable riffs and some superb angry energy, and I will be shocked if it's not the next single. Also, on a positive note, the songs do have significantly more coherency than they did on Angles, definitely a step in the right direction

But by this point, the main problem with The Strokes' is now clear as glass, and while it might have been evident on previous Strokes albums, here it takes the cake. To be blunt, Julian Casablancas ruins this album, and if The Strokes aren't careful, he's going to take the rest of the band with him. It's a little astounding how much his problems cripple this album, and render Comedown Machine far less than the sum of his parts.

Let's begin with the immediately obvious, and the thing that nearly got me to turn off the album in disgust seconds into the first song: the falsetto. More precisely, the bad falsetto, where no amount of autotuning and voice effects disguising just how shrill and off-key it is. There's an art of singing in falsetto if you want to make it sound decent, and even artists who can make it work (Chris Martin of Coldplay, Freddie Mercury of Queen, the Scissor Sisters and Mika in a pinch) don't tend to sound their best in this range, and they typically use it on quieter tracks. In other words, you don't tend to carry a song with falsetto - you use it with a delicate touch. 

Casablancas, on the other hand, uses falsetto with no delicacy, taste, or care whatsoever, and what's worse is that his voice is far too thin at that range to pull it off. It becomes incredibly frustrating when juxtaposed against the times he uses his regular voice - which is nothing to write home about, but it sure as hell fits the style of the music more! It also doesn't help matters that as a vocalist, particularly in his upper range, Casablancas is really something of a blank slate, in that he doesn't bring a lot of texture and personality to the table. He's no Jack White or Brandon Flowers (of The Killers) or even Billie Joe Armstrong in this regard, and his addition of grating, out-of-place vocal effects don't help matters. They certainly feel out-of-place when juxtaposed against the majority of the tracks, half of which are traditional Strokes material and the other half seem cribbed from the most absolute weakest late 70s and early 80s rock you can find. But yet even some the lackluster instrumentation has some flair and style and occasional funkiness that I can dig - until Casablancas starts squealing over everything.

But you know, all of this would be excusable if the songwriting was any good - and like every album by the Strokes for the past decade, it's clear that Casablancas just isn't a good songwriter. The few lyrics I could make out from behind the piles of awkward synth and vocal affects aren't even worth mentioning, because they're so lightweight and ineffectual and ultimately completely worthless. Now, I admit that The Strokes aren't within spitting distance of classic lyrics even on their best albums, but where the instrumentation is lackluster and the vocals somehow end up at the top of the mix, the lyrics can be the glue that holds everything together, and here, they barely exist.

You know, I can bet there'll be people who will read this review and think that I'm stuck in the past, with Is This It and Room On Fire - but the problem is that The Strokes have never come within spitting distance of those albums over the past decade, as every bit of instrumental experimentation falls flat and Casablancas is revealed to have more taste than actual skill. Believe me, I want to like new albums by The Strokes, but they just haven't delivered enough. I have a hard enough time recommending this album - I mean, with all of the haphazard experimentation, I can bet most old-school Strokes fans are going to like most of it in the slightest. 

For everyone else... eh, there is so much better. Go dig up the first two Strokes albums, and get a glimpse of what might have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment