In 2001, The Strokes released their debut record, “Is This It,” and it’s been diminishing returns ever since. Granted, they had nowhere to go but down. “Is This It” is nearly perfect, a thirty-five minute shot in the arm. The young Strokes – led by their raw and brilliant songwriter, Julian Casablancas – seemed to know their limitations. “Is This It” has one tempo, no fat, and most importantly, it was made using rock instruments: two guitars, a bass, and drums. Sounds crazy now, but back then critics believed the Strokes would save rock n’ roll. Hey, maybe they did. It’s hard to imagine the White Stripes, Black Keys, and Killers getting nearly as big without them.
As the Strokes got older, they began experimenting with slower tempos and electronics, but never strayed far from their winning formula. Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. fine-tuned their collaborative partnership while the rhythm section kept driving in 4/4. In 2003 the band released their sophomore album “Room on Fire,” and for the lead single, “12:51,” the Strokes coalesced into an even tighter, poppier unit than before. But overall, on “Room on Fire” and “First Impressions of Earth” (2006) the Strokes grew pale. Especially Casablancas, whose melodies felt increasingly forced. Then the Strokes did what many bands do when in a slump: they went on hiatus and Casablancas and Hammond put out requisite solo albums despite Valensi’s protests. In 2011, the Strokes set aside their differences and reassembled for “Angles.” The killer single “Under Cover of Darkness” signaled a big comeback, but “Angles” fell flat. It’s the nadir of the Strokes’ uneven discography.
“Comedown Machine” is better, but not by much. Its highest high is the opening cut, “Tap Out.” Amidst prickly guitars and a Studio 54 beat, Casablancas sings his trademarked macho-sleazy lyrics in falsetto. “Even though I really like your place, somehow we don’t have to know each other’s name.” Though he’s clearly become fond of his new-found technique, it ends up failing him time and again. This record’s got a lot of filler, people. “Slow Animals” and “Partners and Crime” squander any momentum from “80’s Comedown Machine,” and on the “Is This It” style rockers, “All The Time” and “50 50,” the Strokes sound like imitators at best, a local cover band at worst.
It’s only when the band tries something radically new that “Comedown Machine” works. The panning guitars on “Chances” bring to mind Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” On the closer “Call it Fate Call it Karma,” the Strokes lean heavily on muted organ and baroque strings, not unlike indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo. The aforementioned title track is a sexy romp in slow motion.
“One Way Trigger,” with its insistent and annoying riff, should come to represent a line in the sand for Strokes fans. I’m reminded of Weezer’s “Can’t Stop Partying.” On that song, the once-beloved group turned its back on its storied history, got in touch with Lil Wayne, and cut a ridiculous song for top-40 radio. Point being, if you could hang with “Can’t Stop Partying,” you could hang with the new Weezer. And if you’re still on board the Strokes’ sinking ship after “One Way Trigger,” maybe they’ll reward you for sticking around. For me, “Tap Out” is the only song on “Comedown Machine” worthy of my Strokes Greatest Hits playlist, while the rest has me convinced that I should jump ship while the jumping’s good.
There are, on occasion, films that are so achingly sad that they sit on your heart and pull out this silky depression that both inspires and subdues. These films are rare because they manage to balance the grim reality of the subject matter with a tastefully effective artistry, and require little to no blood and guts violence. But, rather than acting as moments meant to suck you into a pit of despair, they act as conductors for the electricity of life. They are so gloomy that they are using reverse-psychology to inspire the viewers to reconsider their approach to life.
For example, “Detachment” (2011) has the potential to make nihilism sound optimistic. Director Tony Kaye and lead actor Adrien Brody build on the harsh truths of public education through the eyes of the underpaid, underappreciated substitute teacher. Henry Barthes (Brody), the substitute teacher for an abandoned English class, slowly reveals his unspoken torments through quiet and poetic narration, resilient compassion, and a profound passivity. Barthes finds a young prostitute, Erica (Sami Gayle), and expresses this compassion by giving her a safe place to stay, food to eat, and medical attention. In the mean time, combative students, a looming loneliness, and the unsavory memories of his now-senile grandfather bully Barthes into a quiet submission, yet he is unwilling to give up and in to the depression that he undoubtedly feels. With a resolute intolerance for violence, Barthes attempts to teach his students to think independently and to survive the brutality of a reality forced upon them.
Beware, there is a significant (read: overwhelming) amount of pessimism in “Detachment,” so if the darker side of the emotional spectrum easily sways you, this film might not be for you. Kaye does not hold back on the heartache; there is a never-ending supply of struggle, be it through difficult and disinterested students, crude and brutish teachers, stifling isolation, traumatic flashbacks, neglect, suicide, rape, hunger, dirtiness… But let me be clear — Kaye is not simply spouting off “oh woe is I! Take pity and always feel this pain!”
I say this for two reasons. First of all, Kaye asserts that despite the awful shit in life, there is still a tendency in human nature for us to help each other in any way possible. Barthes does this by fostering a prostitute; the teachers of the high school do this by the very act of teaching and putting up with the abuse from students and their parents. There is profound nobility in that tendency, no matter how much of the ugly junk covers it up. Second of all, the unwillingness to bend in the face of death, abuse and hatred far outshines the decay and destruction of life (e.g. Barthes, the grandson of an abusive man and the son of an abused mother, continued to visit his grandfather, care for a prostitute, and educate a bunch of bored teens). While this seems like a stretch, it’s important to remember that when everything in life points to the negative, Life is probably trying to suggest the opposite by embedding in our spirits a resilient desire to endure.
So, regardless of the darkness, “Detachment” is a poignantly inspirational film when viewed through the right lens, without the cheesy and off-putting one-liner quotes.