When Is This It came out in 2001 I was sixteen years old. I’d just gotten my license and had a blue 1989 Volvo with a precariously dangling muffler, and a radio that you had to constantly hit just in the right place to coax any sort of sound from. To this day I still have fond memories of that magnificent automobile and the soundtrack that The Strokes provided to my naïve early driving experiences. With my cassette adaptor plugged securely into my CD Walkman I would cruise the back roads of my southern Maine home, just happy to be experiencing the new found freedom that having a driver’s license allowed. Is this It was the perfect record for this formative time. The vocals were gritty, the lyrics were easy to memorize, and I had fantasies of proficiently playing the raw repetitive guitar licks demonstrated by Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi. My life had reached its young pinnacle.
Lately my musical tastes have evolved and changed, but my faith in The Strokes has never wavered. After seeing them in Portland the summer after my sophomore year I was utterly convinced that they were absolutely the greatest living band on the planet. They played every song in their meager catalog, including several from the yet to be released Room on Fire, and were unable to perform an encore simply because they had no more material. Each band member moved with an air of coolness and nonchalance that was simply awe-inspiring to my sixteen year-old self, and I silently pledged my undying loyalty to them that evening. They seemed to be a band destined for unending awesomeness.
Flash forward to 2003. Room on Fire is released and introduces some new musical elements while retaining the tried and true Strokes sound. It is a fitting sequel to its predecessor. Two years later in 2005, First Impressions of Earth comes out, and a significant change begins to take place. There is an uncharacteristic sheen to the recording, and the distortion that once encapsulated the voice of Julian Casablancas is conspicuously missing. It’s a little bit too long, and receives some very poor critical reviews. My expectations for the band begin to dip as they disappear for several years, and each member with the exception of Valensi released a solo record. The possibility of another Strokes album seemed bleak.
Yet, in 2011 a flurry of action began to take place on the band’s official website, and soon after Angles was released. And it was…disappointing. Some of the songs were interesting, and the interplay between members was still present, but the album seemed flat. There were rumors of strained relationships, especially between Casablancas and the other 3 band mates, and The Strokes once again seemed destined for self-destruction and a disappearance from the public eye.
However, far from disintegrating, the group has recorded and released Comedown Machine. Clocking in at 37 minutes 49 seconds (according to the record sleeve) it is not exactly a return to form for the New York band that was once given the mantle of ‘saviors of rock,’ but holds much more promise than Angles. It is a record bursting with ideas, some fully realized and others somewhat half-baked, especially towards the end of the record. Yet, it continues to be in steady rotation on my Ipod, and I attribute its staying power to several tunes in particular.
Comedown Machine is a front-loaded album with its best tracks showing up early on. “Tap Out” sounds like a sexed-up soundtrack to a long-lost Nintendo game, and “All the Time” is a decent first single. Later on, the pairing of “Welcome to Japan” and “80’s Comedown Machine” provide the most repeat ready listening. “Japan” in particular has an awesomely choppy guitar riff and addictive chorus, especially the section in which Julian Casablancas laconically inquires, “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”
Although the interesting listening begins to dissipate towards its conclusion, Comedown Machine is most definitely a Strokes album, and contains some truly great tracks. Just as I have changed greatly since the summer of 2001, so have the members of the band. They continue to refine their craft, and are unwilling to continually produce Is This It clones. This drive to experiment is to be admired, and although some of their followers have lost faith, I continue to be a believer in the rock and roll institution that is The Strokes.