It’d be nice to live as one of The Strokes. Just their mere existence seems enthralling. Although Julian Casablancas always looks two shades away from a drug addict – you know, disheveled, sleep deprived, and with hair in dire need of Pert Plus – he still shuffles around with this aura that sells him as the coolest fucking guy on the planet. The same applies to the four others, who all still look like they’re in their early 20s. Yes, 10 years later, New York’s finest rock ‘n’ roll export – a title that deserves more credit than you’d imagine – need not worry about its prestige, or its relevance. They went on hiatus, only to return as kings, headlining festivals and working with a red-hot hype machine, one that most acts in their class would perform sex acts for – it’s true. Five years ago, you wouldn’t have pegged the band as even potentials for headlining the likes of Lollapalooza, and especially not Coachella. You just wouldn’t. Here’s some perspective, though: The last time they stepped off the stage (sometime in Fall of ’06?), they were opening for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and they looked fucking miserable, too.
So, they’ve had a vacation of sorts. Casablancas, Albert Hammond, Jr., and Nikolai Fraiture put out solo works, all with mixed results, Valensi spent time raising his child and performing next to Sia, while Fabrizio Moretti broke things off with Drew Barrymore (ouch) and worked on Little Joy. It’s been a tender five years since they unbuckled First Impressions of Earth, the polarizing third LP that left fans and critics swinging both ways. Because of this lapse in time, so many folks love to romanticize the idea of the band nearly breaking up, speculating that Casablancas grew tired, or Hammond, Jr. wanted more. It’s not surprising, really, especially since the band spent sessions recording without Casablancas, or vice versa. But, as Fraiture told Spin back in January, “There was a lot of back and forth. I don’t know if Julian had trouble being with us — I don’t know what was going through his mind. There were tensions. But it worked.”
Worked, indeed. Angles, The Strokes’ long awaited fourth LP, stands as the group’s most eclectic album to date. Digressing on the album title, again with Spin, Fraiture insisted, “It’s all about the different approach and the different ways these song came out.” That truth speaks volumes here. If you pegged “Under Cover of Darkness” as the true harbinger for the record, you’re sorely mistaken. It’s maybe one of possibly two tracks that harkens back to the band’s early days. The remainder sees the quintet exploring new sounds and new faces, assembling a pocket full of erratic tunes that sound like The Strokes but in a non-traditional sense. To use an inordinately esoteric (and borderline asinine) example, it’s sort of like the old action figure lines for Batman in the mid-’90s. The figure itself always looked the same, at least in terms of size and specifications, but it came in seven or eight different variations. You know, like Arctic Batman, Midnight Batman, Tarantula Batman, etc., etc.. If you were lucky, you snagged a missile launcher, or a dino buddy, or something to that nature.
No dino buddies here, but the band does change its wardrobe aplenty. At one moment, they’re exploring murky ’80s dance grooves (“Machu Pichu”), only to backpedal seconds later with sunny melodies and popcorn riffage (“Under Cover of Darkness”). In the latter track, arguably the album’s most accessible and traditional moment, Casablancas insists he “won’t just be a puppet on a string.” He sticks to his guns, abandoning the band’s more ancestral sounds, and instead surges forward. But, remarkably, the band sounds most comfortable when they’re exploring uncharted territory.
Some of it isn’t too distant and bizarre. If you took a chance with Casablancas’ incredibly underrated solo effort, 2009’s Phrazes for the Young, portions of material here may sound oddly familiar. “Two Kinds of Happiness” channels that hazy, aerial riffage that made up “Left & Right in the Dark”, while “Games” swims with filters and synthesizers that follow up “11th Dimension”. The difference here, however, is that these songs feel more focused and in tune. They don’t wander as much. Fraiture won’t let them; neither will Moretti. The two rope in the remaining three, keeping things precise and less fragmented. Take latest B-side, “You’re So Right”, for instance. Manic guitar lines segue with toe numbing percussion, while vocals wade in and out of Fraiture’s accelerated bottom lines. It helps that the guy wrote it. Altogether, it’s a frantic, pulsing inclusion, but it wouldn’t work without the solid composure of each member. That’ll silence the skeptics.
Still, you can’t silence them for long, and, admittedly, parts of the album do falter. Having produced this themselves, with the exception of the closing track, which was worked on by producer Joe Chiccarelli (Shins, My Morning Jacket), there are little touches that irritate. At times Casablancas marries himself too closely to the instrumentation (“Taken for a Fool”), while other moments seem spoiled by flooding out the background (“Metabolism”). Time will tell if abandoning longtime producer Gordon Raphael was a good thing, but at the moment, it seems like the band could have used a little tightening. It’s not just them, though. On the aforementioned album closer, “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”, Chiccarelli patches up any holes in sound, rounding out the album with a soiree of Police-like scales, atmospheric chords, soaring synthesizers, bells, etc.. It’s a beautiful collage, but slightly distracting, specifically the verses, where Casablancas happens to exhibit his strongest lyrics. Rest assured, though, the chorus champions on, and while it sounds stripped from Phrazes…, it’s catchy, it’s dance-y, and the layers finally work to its advantage.
As with any Strokes record, the band slows things down, taking some time out for deeper moments of reflection. After all, Casablancas loves to dwell. “Is This It”? “Under Control”? “Ask Me Anything”? All in the same ballpark. Much like its predecessors, “Call Me Back” sees the elusive frontman coming to terms with his present conditions. “I look for you, and you look away,” he observes, moaning along to ghostly harmonies and spider-like guitars that crawl over an array of light noises. For a record stuffed with instrumentation, this sparse melody feels delectably rich and grounded. The bitter frontman entertains us with some humor, too, when he remarks, “Wait time is the worst/I can hardly sit/No one has the time/It’s why I’m always late.” That must be tongue-in-cheek, right? Maybe. Well, probably since he follows this up with “Gratisfaction”, a hip swinging jamboree that sees the band applauding themselves – literally.
Recently, Valensi told NME, “If we had just released [Angles] a year or two after the last one, I imagine it would have gone better.” Not sure that’s true. So many critics winced at the twists and turns of First Impressions of Earth, and yet that featured more traditional sounding tunes than here. It’s very likely they would have seethed from the mouth at the nature of this beast. While they do “return to form” on a couple tracks here, it’s quite the departure in sound from their last effort. But, we’re more open to the changes today. Not to mention, the band’s laid it out for us. They’ve insisted upon the album’s differing perspectives again and again. Because of this, Angles stays true to its name. It’s a multidimensional record that picks and pulls from various folders. Sure, it could benefit from some cohesion, but given the boys’ state of mind, it would be unfair to expect that from them. Instead, it’s a sultry exhibition, one that spotlights the band’s strengths, yet also its weaknesses. There’s something remarkably intimate about that. Exciting, too.
Before the proverbial curtain drops on “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”, Casablancas warns, “Don’t try to stop us, get out of the way.” If we’re to take Angles into consideration, it’s highly unlikely we’ll stand our ground. At this time, we’re more than willing to step aside and let them do their thing. Hell, it’s that redemptive freedom that brought them back to the fold in the first place – and with headlining slots and smiles to boot. All we ask, however, is this time, please don’t leave us waiting in the dust for five more years. Deal?
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.