The Strokes, Sans ‘Strummy Sh-t,’ Return with Comedown Machine

“WHAT is this strummy SH-T!?”

The year was 2005. Gay cowboys made us cry, Razr phones were the BEST, and in New York the Mets were finally winning again. It was good to be alive.

That fall, a young and fiery Bart Clareman had moved home to New York City where he thought everyone at a party would like to listen to The Strokes, so he commandeered his friend Anna’s iPod-capable stereo system (the BEST) and threw on his “Essential Strokes” mix.

I got about two songs in before Anna, cursing my musical preferences (see above), swapped out The Strokes for god knows what, but safe to say it was less strummy.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Two albums into their career, The Strokes had amassed legions of fans and as many detractors. Among the detractors who criticized their music (as opposed to their upbringing, their lucrative record deal, or whatever else), a common refrain was that all Strokes songs sounded the same.

While that never made a ton of sense to a fan like me, certainly I could appreciate that 2001’s instant-classic Is This It and its follow up, 2003’s Room on Fire, were very similar albums. The Strokes had a sound, and it was pretty brilliant.

Yes, Anna, it was strummy, but beyond that, it was cool in a very New York kind of way, and it all seemed so effortless – tracks like ROF’s album-closing “I Can’t Win” came together so seamlessly it became easy to take the band’s output for granted.

Ten years after Room on Fire, it’s clear we shouldn’t have. After releasing two sonically similar albums in quick succession, album three, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, was the band’s first, uneven attempt to break out of the “strummy sh-t” box. The album had its highs, bookends “You Only Live Once” (#yolo, y’all!) and “Red Light” among them, but also severe clunkers – the first of their career, really – like “Fear of Sleep” or “Evening Sun.”

After an extended hiatus and a slew of solo projects, the band “reunited” (sans lead singer Julian Casablancas, who did his vocal work remotely, which I mean come on) for 2011’s Angles. The experiments came fast and furious, and the results were mixed.

For every familiar-sounding song (“Under Cover of Darkness,” “Taken for a Fool”), there were tracks like “You’re So Right” (which everyone else seems to despise but is probably my favorite song from that album) and “Games” that were legitimately unlike anything the band had ever done before as a collective. It felt like the work of a band in transition, one that wanted to be one thing for itself but felt obligated to be something else for its fans, the two compulsions tugging in different directions all at once.

All of which brings us to the band’s latest release, Comedown Machine, which came out last Tuesday. Where once a friend might ask “what is this strummy sh-t?”, listening to Comedown Machine prompts a different question: “THIS is The Strokes?”

The band throws a few bones to old-time fans. Lead single “All the Time” is right out of the playbook, a track that would fit in comfortably, if less urgently, on either of the first two albums. “50/50” plays like a latter-day “Take It or Leave It” by way of Green Day (especially in their Foxboro Hot Tubs guise) or (perhaps a more likely influence) Arctic Monkeys, and “Slow Animals” sounds for all the world like The Strokes crossed with something you might hear on Phoenix’s upcoming album.

But mostly it’s a very different-sounding album. More jarring than anything may be that for large swaths of the album, Casablancas trades his trademark just-woke-up croon for a where-did-that-come-from falsetto.

The result is an album that bears more in common with Casablancas’ solo album, 2009’s Phrazes for the Young, or Phoenix’s 2006 album It’s Never Been Like That (which itself sounded like Phoenix trying to sound like The Strokes), than anything the New York quintet ever released previously.

The results aren’t bad, necessarily, just unexpected. Songs like “Tap Out,” “Welcome to Japan,” and “One Way Trigger” are fun, punchy songs without honest comparables in the band’s catalog.

Usually a once-per-album effort, The Strokes add three slow songs to their canon, one good (“80’s Comedown Machine”), one puzzling (album-closer “Call it Fate, Call it Karma”), and one excellent (“Chances”), the latter of which is the closest they’ve come to recapturing the beauty of the ROF stunner “Under Control.”

Like The Strokes’ general post-Room on Fire oeuvre, Comedown Machine is ultimately a bit uneven. It has its moments, but it lacks the type of up-tempo hits that would make it eminently more memorable.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that the band is capable of so much more. Or maybe I can’t help myself from hoping that album six (if one ever arrives) brings back the “strummy sh-t” that made this band so amazing in the first place (Anna’s of the world be damned).

Recommended Downloads: “Tap Out,” “All the Time,” “One Way Trigger,” “Chances”

FYI – Recommended Downloads (albums 1-4): “Someday,” “Last Nite,” “Hard to Explain,” “Reptilia,” “12:51,” “Under Control,” “I Can’t Win,” “You Only Live Once,” “Red Light,” “Under Cover of Darkness,” “You’re So Right,” “Taken for a Fool”