Album review: The Strokes, 'Comedown Machine'

2 stars (out of 4)

Listen to “Call it Fate, Call it Karma” -- the final song on the Strokes new album, “Comedown Machine” (RCA) -- and it sounds planets removed from the leather-jacketed band of New York City upstarts that made “Is This It” in 2001. The new track is a moody soul-lounge ballad, with Julian Casablancas crooning in falsetto over a gently undulating guitar; back in the ‘50s they might have called this something like “space-age bachelor pad music” or “E-Z Listening.”

In any case, it’s perversely enchanting, even if it has nothing to do with the guitar churn and driving subway-train rhythms that made the Strokes sound like the heirs to the Velvet Underground-New York Dolls-Feelies sound. Its strangeness isn’t necessarily a bad thing: growth, evolution, experimentation – these are virtues that can keep a band relevant as it enters its second decade.

But the Strokes have been frittering away the reputation built on the quintet’s limited but immaculately shaggy debut for most of the last decade. The production on most of “Comedown Machine” is off-putting in its chilliness: Everything about opening track “Tap Out” sounds plastic, a simulation of ‘80s radio pop, with an incongruous, abstract guitar solo thrown on top. The bright, bouncy “One Way Trigger” essentially rewrites the 1985 single “Take on Me” by Norwegian one-hit wonders A-ha. “Welcome to Japan” nods to Technotronic’s late ‘80s techno-rap, and “Happy Ending” messily merges synth-pop with guitars.

The tangents won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Casablancas’ keyboard-heavy solo album, “Phrazes for the Young” (2009), and the more experimental touches on the second half of the Strokes’ fourth album, “Angles” (2011). As if to provide a little reassurance to the diehards, “50/50,” “Partners in Crime” and “All the Time” hint at the signature Strokes propulsion, with Casablancas’ vocals occasionally pushed into a distorted roar, almost like the old days – emphasis on “almost.” This sounds like a tired band when it tries to revisit its past.

The singer, at least, sounds far more invested in the quieter, more unsettling material. A lattice-work of guitars underpins a wistful falsetto vocal on “Slow Animals,” and the ambient title track evokes the Beach Boys – and quite possibly the rest of the Strokes -- melting down at sunset.

greg@gregkot.com

CHICAGO

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