Comedown Machine

(RCA; 2013)

By David M. Goldstein | 2 April 2013

Growing up in 1980s suburbia, it should come as no surprise that myself and most of my neighborhood possessed a classic 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. And there was one kid in the neighborhood, who shall remain nameless but with whom I remain in touch to this day, who didn’t quite get it when it came to proper video game purchasing. His parents always took a “quantity over quality” tact, preferring him to get three horrendous games at fifteen dollars each as opposed to a single good one at forty-five. His NES never knew the likes of Metroid or Super Mario Brothers 2, but rather utter dreck like Raid on Bungling Bay, Tiger-Heli, and Freedom Force, all of which I’m guessing very few of you (rightfully) remember.

Somehow or other this guy became the proud owner of Acclaim’s (a frequent offender) Total Recall, based on the 1990 Verhoven movie. It is no exaggeration to state that it is quite possibly the worst video game ever made. Incomprehensibly bad with the choppiest animation imaginable, it was the only time I recall three out of four reviewers in Electronic Gaming Monthly doling out twos, a rarity akin to a one-star Rolling Stone review. I only played this game for fifteen minutes, but some things once seen can simply never be unseen, or unheard. Total Recall was also home to a mind-numbingly simplistic soundtrack; hardly the comparatively symphonic works featured in Contra and Life Force (and Konami games were always ahead of the curve in terms of amazing tunes), but a repetitive loop played on a crappy synth with one hand. The utter lack of effort with regard to both gameplay and soundtrack in Total Recall is kind of unparalleled; it’s the most cynical movie to video game cash in of the past twenty-five years.

I, like the Strokes, am in my early thirties. Even if their respective dads could surely afford better games, I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that Total Recall fucked with their heads like it did mine. How else to explain their new song “One Way Trigger,” which essentially sounds exactly like the Total Recall music overlaid with Julian Casablancas’s falsetto croon? It’s like the only way they could exorcise it was to recreate it—and, to their credit, it works anyway, the blippy synths giving way to the only acoustic guitars on the album and the predictably Casablancian couplet of “You want me to stay / But there’s a million reasons to leave!!!” “One Way Trigger” is indicative of the whole of Comedown Machine in that it’s both sneaky catchy and completely uncool; this is the Strokes record where they drop all vestiges of East Village pretense and revel in full-on Kool-Aid drinking, G.I. Joe playing, ’80s dorkdom. We know some of them went to Swiss boarding school, but clearly they (or Casablancas at least) got far more out of listening to DeBarge and Duran Duran in the back seat of the family station wagon then they initially let on.

And they’re sort of in an envious position right now because nobody has anything resembling expectations for a new Strokes record. While they’ll never entirely escape the long shadow of Is This It? (2001), they’re clearly not concerned with wasting the rest of their lives trying to live up to it. The underlying vibe throughout Comedown Machine is that of “eh, why the hell not?” It’s the loosest, goofiest record they’ve ever made, and it audibly cracks them up on at least one occasion. The reported tension underlying the birth of their previous record, Angles (2011), has been seemingly replaced with something more akin to “you done tracking that mellotron and funky hand claps? Sweet, brah, let’s hit up that new exotic beer bar and reconvene at the studio in three weeks provided my back isn’t acting up and I don’t have to drop kid off at art class.”

None of this shit should work on paper. The first song sounds like a lo-fi remix of DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” and the title track is a charming mellotron ballad damn near derailed by the frequent use of a “Cha, Cha, cha cha” noise that mirrors what I hear on the phone when the bank has me on hold. Casablancas casually disses douchey sportscar owners on the Duran Duran lite-funk of “Welcome to Japan” and frets for the younger generation on “Slow Animals” which actually features subject matter alarmingly similar to John Mayer’s “Daughters.” What the hell is going on here?

But don’t get it twisted: just because the Strokes seem unusually, uh, playful this time out doesn’t mean they don’t care. Comedown Machine was banged out old school, with all of the members in the studio at once, and it shows. This machine holds together surprisingly well, and doesn’t suffer from the bizarre fluctuations in production quality that hindered the pieced together Angles. And they’re also refreshingly self-aware; “Macchu Piccu” and “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” were easily Angles’ two best songs, so they spend most of Comedown Machine attempting to rewrite them, particularly on “Slow Animals” and dancefloor filler “Happy Ending,” which contains the record’s catchiest chorus and again demonstrates that Julian Casablancas is only rivaled by David Lee Roth for best rock pronunciation of the word “baby.” It also helps that they’ve become far better musicians since their heyday; adaptable to a variety styles and with a rhythm section able to groove. While no one ever questioned Fabrizio Moretti’s metronomic drumming, until now he was never what you would think of as funky, and the oft-maligned Nikolai Fraiture has oddly morphed into the Strokes’ MVP, now favoring dexterous, bouncy bass lines where once he was content to play root notes for forty minutes at a time.

The one song that sounds most like “classic” Strokes (“All the Time”) is by far the most boring, and the lunkheaded Waits-homage of “Call it Fate, Call it Karma” finally halts the Strokes’ heretofore flawless streak of killer album closers. But fans of Angles should rejoice as Comedown Machine is essentially a refined version of that album’s strengths. The Strokes have always been ardent admirers of Guided by Voices, and once stated at the height of their fame that’s really what they aspire to be: a cult band capable of banging out quirky albums on a whim, able to follow their muse just outside of the spotlight. Maybe this record is the first version of that Strokes iteration? It’s the final installment of their five album deal with RCA, but doesn’t bear any resemblance to a band on the verge of calling it quits. Rather, it sounds like a bunch of old friends that get together when time permits to knock out some ’80s cheese pop prior to takeout sushi and an Arrested Development marathon. They’re far removed from Alphabet City heartthrob status, sure, but Comedown Machine proves that their pop instincts are still razor sharp.