Where would American rock ‘n’ roll be today without The Strokes? Say what you want about them, but is rock music not better off today because of them? Yes, those prep school kids from affluent families who decided to form the New York band back in 1998.
I was in junior high in 1998 and the “cool” bands at the time were Korn, Marilyn Manson and Dave Mathews Band. On the other end, there was ‘N Sync and The Backstreet Boys. We were a bit too young for the 90’s grunge boom. But yes, in the late 90’s, there was The Wallflowers, Third Eye Blind, and even The New Radicals, but as far as contemporary rock music, the future was unclear. Was rock music going to grow beyond this? Or, has the best already happened? Is this it?
I grew up in a middle-class family, but, I can imagine, that if from a wealthy background, there is easier ways of playing the rich-kid card and coasting through life than starting a band. Don’t get me wrong, with affluence in your corner, it would be awesome to disengage from life responsibilities and mess around in a band with friends from school. It would definitely be a fun time, but I can’t imagine most instances of that progressing into anything more. Money can buy a fun time; it can’t buy inspiration. It can’t buy drive or talent or hard work. You can’t buy a fire to burn within you. And that is why we are still talking about The Strokes in 2013, upon the release of their fifth album, Comedown Machine.
With Comedown Machine, the fire is still present. If you’re unsure of what I mean by that, check out the The Strokes performance of “Take It Or Leave It” on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2002. It is one of the most raw, intense, passionate rock band performances ever recorded on television. Lead Singer Julian Casablancas leads a hungry rendition of the frustrated and jealously-fueled Is This It gem. It’s an exhaustingly impressive performance; not a bad go for a bunch of rich kids.
“Welcome To Japan” is a song on Comedown Machine that very much reminds me of “Take It Or Leave It.” It begins on a groovy, funky note, includes some literal and bold lines (“What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”), but ultimately it delves into the same bothered and passionate streak of “Take It Or Leave It” (Or along the same lines, Room On Fire’s “What Ever Happened” or First Impressions of Earth’s “Heart In A Cage,” or “Red Light”). Casablancas is again calling out the frustrating love interest with the unworthy boyfriend. He culminates a specifically poignant string of lyrics on the song’s bridge and it peaks with the inarguable, “You’ll never believe me till you’re on your own.” The track accelerates from there, finishing with a frantic release. There will never be another “Take It Or Leave It.” But twelve years later, hearing “Welcome To Japan,” it’s nice to know the spark is still present.
As a whole, Comedown Machine is a fine album. It’s a return to form for the band after 2011’s Angles, which was good, but not as comprehensive as their previous albums (First Impressions Of Earth, by the way, is rather underrated, I definitely recommend another listen or two). Upbeat lead single “One Way Trigger” is reminiscent of the Room On Fire era; The slower and lush “80’s Comedown Machine” recalls the beautiful and harmony-focused “Ask Me Anything” off of First Impressions of Earth.
The yearning, ballad-esque “Chances” and stirring “Slow Animals” are two fanatic highlights on the new album. “Slow Animals” closes with a wonderfully exciting, uptempo transition—a strikingly harmonious moment. Altogether, instrumentation on the new album is undeniably The Strokes, however, many of the new songs feature fresh, innovative and often danceable arrangements. Albert Hammonds Jr and Nick Valensi are as melodic as ever on the guitars. And Bassist Nikolai Fraiture and Drummer Fabrizio Moretti do a fantastic job of pacing the eclectic group of songs on Comedown Machine.
I think it’s safe to say, rock ‘n’ roll is in a better place now than it was in 1998. How much influence did The Strokes have on that? Well, I’ll save that for another day. But you can’t ignore what they’ve done as a band in the past 15 years. Yes, even with the hiatuses, break-up rumors, affluent background, lack of album touring support—it’s all part of it— all that mystique and elusive history, along with the unwavering music and performances, it’s what makes The Strokes the quintessential American rock band. If The Strokes didn’t happen, American rock music would be missing something. Music would be missing something; it wouldn’t be the same today. And five starving rich kids would not be doing what they’re best at, not be doing what they were born to do.