Album Review: The Strokes – ‘Comedown Machine’

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It would be easy to assume that the title was referencing its members’ well-documented chemical indulgences, but it seems that the New Yorkers’ fifth record’s name refers to an altogether different detoxification; a step away from their status as the 21st Century’s first and, so far, best rock band. From the expectations, from the pressure, and from the spectre of their glorious debut album, which has arguably kept them locked into trying to be the band they were between 2001 and 2003. Comedown Machine doesn’t sound like it was made by the Strokes, or at least not “the Strokes” that a generation have kept unchanged in their heads. Not that I didn’t enjoy First Impressions of Earth or appreciate Angles – but this is the Strokes record which we’ve been waiting the last decade for.

The first half is a tour-de-force, kicking off with the instantly accessible and joyously catchy ‘Tap Out’, which I doubt I’ve had even recognized as a Strokes track if I hadn’t been forewarned. The titular ‘80s Comedown Machine’ (perhaps my deep title analysis wasn’t as revealing as I first thought) has a positively Zeppelin-esque riff towering over its intro, before it plunges into the extreme processed vocals of the earliest Strokes demos, and a scuzzier, punkier song than anything they’ve released since Is This It. Best of all is the colossal, disco-driven ‘Welcome To Japan’, comprising old-style Strokes staccato guitars, a hefty Elvis Costello influence, and the kind of slick insistence that Julian Casablancas did so well on ‘Little Girl’, his Sparklehorse collaboration; “I didn’t really notice, I didn’t know the gun was loaded – what kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”. Contrast soon comes, with ‘All The Time’, unmistakably pure, classic original Strokes; all angular guitars and punchy, garage rock. Well, they had to throw a bone to everyone who wishes it was still the turn of the millennium.

Whilst the second half subsides slightly, it’s not dismissible. Slightly harder to get into, but still showcasing the band’s progression into unchartered territory, it makes for interesting listening.  Both ’50 50’ and ‘Slow Animals’ are in the same vein as First Impressions, with glossy, processed guitars and echoey percussion and the latter boasting  a brilliantly hooky chorus. Next, jittery vibrato guitars and unusually restrained Strokes on the funky ‘Partners in Crimes’, before a crunching QOTSA style riff crashes into ‘Chances’, overlaid with a Casablancas falsetto. Finally comes track-come-coda ‘Call It Fate Call It Karma’, a pretty piano-led piece, with both a classical and a Motown edge to it. It’s a final shock, a final end to the endless “old Strokes” carping that Casablancas recently bemoaned on Twitter.

It seems that the for-so-long lost boys are back in the game, back in the gang, but with no desire to rehash past glories. Comedown Machine, like an oxymoronic greatest hits of new releases, brings together the best of the Strokes’ back catalogue, whilst giving them a solid 2013 twist. The garage perfection of Is This It and Room on Fire, the processed sound of First Impressions, the tropical lilt of Angles; it’s all there, along with ideas we’ve never heard before. 

 

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The Death of Traditional Album Releases

In the wake of a slew of articles proclaiming the death of pretty much everything (guitar music, journalism, dubstep…), I’m jumping on the bandwagon, and proclaiming that traditional single and album releases are dead. Press release writers and spin doctors, better watch your backs, the end is nigh.

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In the last month alone, there have been four huge album announcements –David BowieMy Bloody Valentine, Justin Timberlake, and The Strokes– all of which deviated from the traditional early-review-release, teaser-trailer, single, single, album template which has dominated the industry for decades. Even less well-established artists are dropping the traditional pomp and ceremony, with the internet enabling many to cut out the middle-man.

The big four were all major announcements, essentially come-back records for highly-established artists with a level of anticipation that would have been strong irrespective of  publicising tactics. Bowie and MBV in particular were all but guaranteed solid initial sales and a buzz of excitement around such long awaited releases. While Timberlake and The Strokes haven’t been away for quite so long, both have retained a colossal following and have iconic releases under their belts.

If it’s not likely to bring any substantial boost to their guaranteed sales, pre-release marketing is no longer worth the risk of exposing the record to leaks and downloads (which clearly would sap initial sales). If a record comes out unannounced  – as with MBV – are the masses more likely to buy it in the shocked heat of the moment, rather than anticipating the release and deciding to download it for free?

Aside from sales figures, the lack of warning from these artists also frees them from the weight of built-up expectations. Kevin Shields’ follow-up to the adored Loveless, was a risky release, and for The Strokes, every record since 2001 has been received with despondency. Removing conjecture-time also removes the threat of over-hype too but at what cost? The  weeks of anticipation, teaser releases and obsession that traditionally herald a key release have been an important part of the relationship between fans and artists for decades.

The trend isn’t limited to recognized artists either. As ever, the internet continues to change everything. A&Rs place increasing importance on an artist’s number of Facebook likes, and we’ve known since Arctic Monkeysthat building a strong online following can break a new band. A$AP Rocky is the most recent example of this, clinching a lucrative record deal on the basis of a Tumblr-centred following.

Amongst the ocean of uploads, finding the good amongst the dire is harder than used to be, particularly using hyperbolic press releases as a filter, but it’s certainly a more-level playing field for those reaching for mainstream success. More and more artists are releasing free mixtapes alongside their official album releases, with The Weeknd being one of the few to effectively use the entire concept as a pitch for a record deal then re purpose them  a year later as his ‘debut’.

The inherent risk of Tumblr is a certain shallowness. Drawing on images far more than audio, listeners are finding their introduction to a new band shaped by sepia-tinged pictures and brashly-animated GIFs rather than actually hearing tracks. It’s an extension of the “buying a Ramones shirt from Topshop, never heard any of their music” phenomenon that plagued the late noughties. Filter-altered shots of Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky dominated blogs much more than any of their songs; yet another odd dilution of pop culture.

Weighing up the lack of building excitement for a new release against the removal of any over-hype based disappointment, the new ways of breaking into the industry against the inevitable ensuing reduction, there are pros and cons to the demise of traditional campaigns. Either way, it’s unlikely to revert any time soon, as the ruthless revolutionary force of the internet marches on.

Ultimately, putting your music out there unannounced makes success much dependent on the actual merits of the release.  And these surprise album drops give us all an excuse to refresh Twitter even more frequently, just in case there’s a new Outkast record out of the blue.

(Originally published at http://lineofbestfit.com)

Single Review: The Strokes – ‘One Way Trigger’

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I don’t think anyone would contest that the Strokes were a game-changing, scene-shaking, gigantically huge deal in 2002; but are we still interested? After all, the star of punk and pop-influenced guitar-led indie has somewhat waned, skinny jeans have become positively mainstream, and the last album was largely disappointing.

The new offering, ‘One Way Trigger’, is not a single but rather a “song” (what defines a single, other than being an individually released track? Is this the single equivalent of a mixtape? Is the distinction that it’s being given away for free?) taken from their approaching album Comedown Machine. It’s certainly recognisably the Strokes, but it’s closer in sound to Angles than any of their other releases. But that’s what we should expect – it is after all, 2013, and the Strokes, like the rest of the world, have changed in the last ten years.

Though if you do want to hark back to the days when no-one had ever heard of Razorlight, when you could still smoke in pubs, and when chavs were just beginning to take over the streets,  there’s something here for you too. An inherently Strokes riff dominates; albeit from a synth rather than a guitar, and Albert manages to jam in a straight classic Strokes solo, which sounds as if he at least hasn’t changed his amp set-up since 2002.

All told, it sounds very Julian. His falsetto soars over the looping synths and minimal, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs-mimicking minimal percussion, coming within a stroke (wahey!) of his self-parodying vocals on the Lonely Island’s ‘Boombox’. From what we saw in the Angles-era interviews, the band was then threatened by serious internal divisions, and it seems to be Casablancas who is leading the way out of the darkness. After waiting six years last time, it’s refreshing to hear a new track after a mere two.

If this had been from some unknown new band, I’d certainly have sat up and taken notice. The verse is a bit annoying, but I like the progression to the chorus, I like the solo, I even like the synths. But there’s something about the Strokes (their on-going status as the saviours of indie-rock this century and that perfect, perfect first album and their jeans and their hair and and) that means we can’t take it. I’m disappointed, and unreasonably so. What was I expecting – a lost track from Is This It? Which of course, now, wouldn’t be half as revolutionary anyway as it was first time round. They progress, they’ve stayed together; we should be thankful. Comedown Machine is slated for late March release, so we have a full two months to rein our expectations in yet.