For all the don’t-give-a-fuck dishevelment and dingy basement brilliance of their early records, the Strokes have always possessed a certain air of suppressed refinement. All five members attended elite prep schools, sported the kind of unruly, roll-out-of-bed coiffures that only come straight from the hair salon, and performed the neat trick of both sounding and looking like their leather-clad, proto-punk idols The Velvet Underground. You could argue that the carefully constructed artifice of the Strokes as greasy rock n’ roll saviors scraped off a CBGB sidewalk was just as central to their success as the superb songs on debut classic Is This It? (2001) and carbon copy Room on Fire (2003). Unfortunately, when the songwriting dried up on First Impressions of Earth (2006) and wasn’t replenished by 1980′s synth sounds on shaky comeback Angles (2011), it was easy to conclude that whatever style the Strokes chose, they had lost their substance.
Damned if Comedown Machine doesn’t prove the Strokes really are pretty boys. On their fifth album, the group abandons grittiness altogether and goes all-in on producer Gus Oberg’s cleaner, radio-slick recording style. It’s a risky move, but what’s truly surprising is how good the songs are once again. The Strokes exhibit an unexpectedly deft touch at crafting catchy, 80′s style pop gems, proving that the electronic experimentation on Angles was less a half-hearted detour than a calculated first step toward Comedown Machine’s extreme makeover. Keyboard riffs and New Wave hooks are still draped all over this record, but this time they’re backed up by the band’s best material in ten years.
It takes about thirty seconds of effervescent guitar chirps and a bouncing bass line to reveal the Strokes are plundering the bands of their youth — the melody on lead track “Tap Out” sounds like Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” Madonna’s “Into The Groove,” and New Order’s “True Faith” all rolled into one. “Welcome to Japan” sways like Duran Duran circa Rio and “One Way Trigger” shamelessly swipes the manic synth hook from A-Ha’s “Take On Me”. Honestly, if you had to pick these songs out of a line-up blindfolded, you’d have no idea they were even from the Strokes — that’s how complete the transformation from scuzzy garage guitars to glittery keyboards, from Julian Casablancas’ warbly growl to crooning falsetto, has become.
Purists will appreciate that lead single “All The Time” and “50 50″ recall the wiry, twin guitar phalanxes on Is This It?, even if the 2013 versions sound more polished and less fucked with, like the band power-washed the grime off their instruments. Casablancas wryly notes: “All the time that I need is never quite enough/ All the time that I have is all that’s necessary” — a nod to the irony of taking five years to make half-baked Angles but only two for the superior Comedown Machine. The two albums share the same immaculate sound dynamics, but Comedown Machine balances it with a warmth and immediacy its predecessor lacked. Casablancas wasn’t even in the studio for Angles’ recording (he sent his vocal parts via digital files and communicated by email), but this time around, he joins band mates behind the famed Electric Lady studio console. The Strokes intentionally left in the sounds of horseplay at the end of “Slow Animals” to prove a point; proximity breeds better chemistry.
The big payoff comes during a late four-song stretch that starts with “Slow Animals,” whose chiming, finger-picked guitars and subtle percussive underpinnings set a new Strokes’ standard for melodic sophistication, and ends with the blissful serotonin burst of “Happy Endings.” In between, “Partners In Crime” sways to jangly, tamborine-shaking rhythms, and “Chances” glistens with soft guitar arpeggios, Ric Ocasek-style production flourishes, and a stunningly nuanced vocal performance from Casablancas. Listen to his little inflections during the chorus, and you’ll scarcely believe this is the same guy who mumbled his way through “Modern Age” and “Soma.” “Chances” isn’t the best song in the Strokes’ catalog, but it’s certainly the loveliest, and all told, the second half of Comedown Machine offers the catchiest streak of choruses the Strokes have had in ages.
In 2006, an obscure French pop band borrowed heavily from muscular rock riffs in the Strokes’ playbook and released arguably their greatest album, It’s Never Been Like That. Seven years later, Phoenix is now one of the world’s biggest indie rock bands, and the Strokes are returning the favor by incorporating the Francophiles’ brand of understated, melodic pop sensibilities into their own palette. The Strokes attempted this once before on Angles with “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight,” but that tune barely rose above thin artistic mimicry given its lack of memorable hooks. Guitarist Nick Valensi knew as much, saying: “I feel like we have a better album in us, and it’s going to come out soon.” He was right. Irrespective of genre or production values, even the best bands like the Strokes and Phoenix live and die by one thing — the quality of their songcraft. On Comedown Machine, New York City’s coarsest sons of privilege rediscover their most valuable commodity, and in the process, make one of year’s most pleasurable records.
The Strokes – “Chances” – mp3