Any number of labels can be affixed to The Strokes’ sound, and over the past decade they largely have. Their debut record “Is This It?” was (and still is) largely considered to be the beginning of a rock and roll movement in the early 00s where the ideas of the cool, leather-jacketed rock stars making garage rock was as novel as it was revivalist. Sure, they were ripping off a number of bands from the 70s, but listening to a lot of those classic albums and then The Strokes you’ll probably find less in common than you initially thought. But so many Strokes-esque bands did follow in their wake following the success of “Is This It?” that crediting them and (to a slightly different degree) The White Stripes with being revolutionaries doesn’t seem wrong. What’s more amazing is how quickly The Strokes flamed out. After an almost equally great sophmore record “Room On Fire” kept them atop the pile they’d created, by 2006 and their third album “First Impressions of Earth” they came across as a band barely able to remain standing, either in the face of overwhelming pressure or lack of new ideas or drug use or some combination of all three. This disheveled group of guys that looked like they rolled out of bed and accidentally stumbled upon brilliance were suddenly lost when it disappeared and started to get desperate when they couldn’t find it again. Enter critical backlash and a host of other fresh inter-band issues that emerged and the guys felt like taking some serious time away from one another was probably for the best. 2007 was when the hiatus began, and 2009 was when it unofficially ended, though not much would happen until last year. In between, there were side projects upon side projects, from Albert Hammond Jr. continuing to hold down a solo career and Julian Casablancas starting one himself to Fabrizio Moretti’s Little Joy and Nikolai Fraiture’s Nickel Eye. None made much of an impact though, which may be a big reason why the hiatus ended and the period of cashing in began.
From the looks of it, the reason why The Strokes took that extended hiatus was more to avoid killing one another. Interviews with band members all seemed to echo the same thoughts, that it was tough for them to share the stage anymore, let alone be stuck in the same room for even a brief period of time. Still, they pressed on with a reunion, and working with producer Joe Chicarelli probably seemed like a good idea back in 2009. After a few sessions of working with him however, one of the few things the band could agree on was that the pairing was not working out. Instead they went to Albert Hammond Jr.’s home studio and made their fourth record “Angles” there. Even then, the only real way they could get the record done was to have Casablancas record his vocals separately and then send them in upon their completion. One of the bigger changes of this revamped version of The Strokes is that everybody now has an influence over the sound and writing on the album, whereas Casablancas typically handled all of that previously. The reason they called the record “Angles” was to emphasize the different perspectives at play. Considering the surprisingly strong track record of bands making landmark albums under the most stressful and antagonistic atmosphere possible, it stood to reason that The Strokes could very well turn out something immensely great in spite of all the controversy. If The Beatles could do it with “Abbey Road”, why not The Strokes with “Angles”? In what should come as little surprise to no one, The Strokes are no Beatles.
“Angles” gets off to a promising start with “Machu Picchu”, even if it’s not exactly what’s expected from the band. There’s a distinct 80s reggae pop groove the track settles into that’s part Police and part Men at Work, which is just a little bit odd for The Strokes. Still, those guitars remain distinctive, as does Casablancas’ scratchy vocals, and the jangly chorus is pretty fun and catchy. Speaking of fun and catchy, first single “Under Cover of Darkness” is classic Strokes in the best way possible, and better than anything on “First Impressions of Earth”. As the first new material anybody heard from the band since 2006, it was like a welcome back party, a celebration and an elevator of hopes that maybe things really were going back to “normal”. The synth-heavy intro to “Two Kinds of Happiness” puts that thought to rest pretty quickly though, as for a few brief moments you may mistake it for a New Order or Cars song. The guitars do take over immediately after that intro, though the 80s vibe remains all the way through the soaring chorus that screams U2 to the point where Casablancas actually sounds like Bono if you pay close enough attention. The quick-picked guitar work is one of the best and most exciting things about the track, but considering how impressive previous Strokes guitar work has been, this is really nothing new. “Taken For A Fool” is new for the band though, as there’s a little twist on their traditional sound. The instrumentation is more dense and complicated than normal, in particular the funky bass line during the verse, and the chorus once again goes pretty big but avoids overreaching. Ultimately it makes for one of the best songs on the entire record.
The second half of “Angles” features more experiments and tries to offer hints at potential directions the band could go should they continue onward after this record. When you mix things up like they do here, keeping fans satisfied is a larger challenge and the hope is it doesn’t come off as too left field or just generally unfocused. The synths make a full-on return courtesy of “Games”, a track that sounds like it would have found a better home on Casablancas’ solo record “Phrazes for the Young”. Complete with handclaps and a dancefloor beat, New Order and Blondie did it better back in their day. Ultimately it’s one of the few genuine missteps on the record. The synths hang around for ‘Call Me Back”, though they’re more background fodder in what’s really a sparse ballad that’s intended to showcase vocals and a single guitar. There are no drums, as the staccatto guitar and the bass on the chorus hold a rhythm together instead, playing out like a song that could crack open and explode with a burst of noise and energy but never does. That is left to “Gratisfaction”, one of the most addictive and blatantly fun songs on the entire album, but also one of the most debt-riddled as well. Take Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and mash it together with the double guitar attack and languid vocals of Thin Lizzy and you know exactly where this song came from. Still, the song does exactly as its title advertises, providing gratuitous satisfaction to the masses. “Metabolism” languishes in a mid-tempo paranoid hell, never quite fast enough to burn off the fat that it generates. Think a slowed down combination of “Heart In A Cage” and “Electricityscape” but less catchy or inspired. The Strokes prove they aren’t down for the count though thanks to album closer “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”, a song that’s almost a microcosm of everything that came before it. There’s a little bit of the old Strokes sound, some fresher and more experimental bits, a touch of 80s style synths, and a pretty manic Julian Casablancas. While it lacks bouncy energy, the chorus hook is relatively well put together even if the song is a downer.
“There’s no one I disapprove of or root for more than myself”, Casablancas sings on “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”. The sentiment could be shared by “Angles” as a whole. Most of us want The Strokes to turn in a record that lives up to the reputation they built for themselves, and when they fail to meet expectations we’re particularly hard on them. In this case it seems that they’ve managed to improve on “First Impressions of Earth” with a handful of songs that live up to that impressive legacy. The rest of the album is frought with problems however. The largest issue is how disjointed the whole thing is, jumping from style to style and experiment to experiment with the belief that the whole thing will sound good. “Angles” is aptly named because of the various directions all the band members came from when putting together these songs, but that’s also its biggest flaw – lack of cohesion. If The Strokes were a dictatorship before and are practicing socialism now, they’d be better served by returning the power and allowing the leather-clad Casablancas fist to rule once more. Naturally that was what caused the hiatus in the first place, so to reasonably expect them to do it again is probably a fool’s errand. Then it comes down to how well they can work together. If all five guys can get on the same page without a fistfight starting, there may still be hope left for this band. Otherwise break out the funeral gear because The Strokes will die, leaving only the question of whether it will be sooner or multiple crappy records later.