Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sonic Sandwich: You Only Stroke Once

One thing that vexes me, that I guess you could say compels me to keep trying to write about music, and in particular argue with people who can't hear me, is The Strokes. I don't know why. All in all not a lot of critics have much negative to say about them. But at the same time, every new release of theirs seems to be met with a halfhearted smile, a shrug, and a saying "Is This It was really good, wasn't it?" I just don't think they get their due.

Their debut is a really good album, as evidenced by the fact that I'm talking about it right now, same as any of those critics. But it's in the past, and they have become a band that is constantly fiddling with their sound, adding and subtracting various elements with varying degrees of success but often coming out on top. I wish I could write a review of their new album, Comedown Machine, in a way that strayed away from this topic, but as the years roll by The Strokes are doomed to stay in the shadow of their debut. It's not enough to stay good after a strong first impression, people expect you to keep getting better somehow. Rock and roll is about serious works of art, not reliable collections of good (and diverse!) tunes.

And make no mistake, the tunes are there: every Strokes album has its share of rock solid tracks that I will love to hear until I inevitably go deaf. Angles, their reluctantly-praised 2011 effort, contains no fewer than four excellent tracks that could not have appeared on Is This It. If I was going to recommend only one album of theirs, I might even skip right to Room on Fire, the same way I'm starting to wonder if I maybe like the Arctic Monkeys' second album better than their first. When The Strokes finally put out at Greatest Hits disc, I'm sure everyone will act like they knew all along, and that the other albums were just weighed down by dross, but I find them thoroughly listenable in all the shadowy corners too.

I haven't given Comedown Machine the level of attention I need before I can really make a review, but I find it so far to be a moody, distant, but impressively constructed record, the underside of the gleaming dance-rock of Angles. It's different than the others, just like the others are different for each other, and I think it's time to step back and take notice that this is not the band that a lot of people think they are or want them to be. They're something much more rare: a changing animal, that spends one album in one skin before subtly shedding it to reveal the next. This was once standard operating procedure for top rock acts, and in retrospect they get praised for it, but there are tons of examples from back then, too, of critics and pundits being unable to appreciate a good thing while it was happening. And this retrograde way of thinking isn't called out, because hey, it's 2013 and The Strokes haven't been "The Big Thing" in about ten years. And fair enough. I just always think it's best to look at music as something you listen to., and this set holds up to that.

I've written extensively on the burden of expectations, and it's something none of us will ever be free from. My official stance now is to treat all these albums, as much as I can, as a debut album. Meet the new Strokes.

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