Saturday evening The Strokes made their third ever SNL appearance; they played "Under Cover Of Darkness" and "Life Is Simple In The Moonlight" from their upcoming album Angles. This two song pairing, the straightforward boogie of the first and the oblique haze of the second recalled the combination of "Last Nite" and "Hard To Explain" from their inaugural performance as musical guests in 2001. Four years have passed since the Strokes released any new material and an early misconception about The Strokes' long-awaited fourth album is that the record is a return to form.
Almost every aspect of this album constitutes a step away from sound the band crafted early in the millennium. If Angles resembles anything, it sounds closest to Julian Casablancas' solo effort Phrazes For The Young. The record is, in a sense, a continuation of The Strokes' standard operating procedure; every album they have made since 2001 has trended away from Is This It's understated mumble, and this is no exception. The 80s synth-rock of Angles is a far cry from the jagged garage numbers the band peddled a decade ago and easily outstrides the experimental sheen of 2006's First Impressions Of Earth in its exploratory tendencies. Rather than a return to form, the record sounds like The Strokes struggling to reinvent themselves.
Part of the reason The Strokes have such difficulty overhauling their formula is because of how suddenly ubiquitous they became when they first broke out of the Lower East Side music scene. They ascended to the heights of fame and could only go out of fashion. Their debut album became an instant classic almost before it was released; in January of that year the garage jangle of The Modern Age EP threatened a rock and roll zeitgeist, sparked a record label bidding war and helped pave the way for bands like The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Vines to find success. However, the angular, modernist restraint of Is This It always hinted at the band's unrealized potential. It sounded like a collection of demos, and that was the key to its appeal--it had the thrill of impulse that seemed unchecked by studio magic tricks. Their 2003 follow up album, Room On Fire, delivered the same compact songs they were known for, but traded the almost abrasive lo-fi for a warmer, more expansive production. If Is This It was the blueprint for Strokes mk.1, then Room On Fire was the height of its execution. The broadened tonal palette and complex arrangements were bounded by a concentration just strong enough to balance the malaise of Julian's vocal delivery. One decade later, the term Strokesy is still a catchall term to describe swaths of guitar bands; and, one decade later, The Strokes have grown up, settled down, and started families. As with many bands, their sound has likewise changed.
Unlike the previous three albums, which were helmed by Casablancas, all five of The Strokes contributed to Angles more or less democratically. Julian was absent for most of the recording sessions and instead laid down his vocal tracks in a separate studio. It is evident in the songs. Rather than tucked comfortably in a nest of interwoven guitars, his voice dances above the instruments. Most of the songs that form Angles sound like a pastiche of random ideas meticulously assembled, often deflecting in numerous directions.
All the chefs can be heard humming in the kitchen on the wildly eclectic lead single "Under Cover of Darkness"--the track careens its way through neat shimmy, infectious sing-alongs, and cut time solos with effortless focus. The rest of the album seems unevenly cooked. "Two Kinds Of Happiness" starts with dreamy, filtered "ooohs" and Julian channeling Rick Ocasek to great effect before veering into U2 territory. The new wave hums and Edge sized riffs sound fantastic on their own, but are halting and clumsy when abutted against each other in the middle of the song. Sleepy palette cleanser "Call Me Back" falls flat as it wanders through half-thoughts and jarring minor-chord arrangements, all while Fab takes a break behind the drums. Though the band seems to have found a convincing sound on the macro level-they rarely misstep when it comes to guitar tones- the unevenness that exists within and between the individual songs proves an unsturdy foundation.
Angles doesn't sound like an album made by a band that wanted to change; it sounds like an album from a band that had to change. The road leading up to this album was long and troubled. In the years since their 2006 hiatus, four out of five Strokes have embarked on solo or side projects, while Nick Valensi kept busy with numerous collaborations. "This band is like a house of cards -- when one thing falls, the whole thing collapses," Valensi said to Rolling Stone earlier this year.
As a frontman Julian Casablancas is a polarizing force; his lackadaisical detachment is at once alienating to audiences and the secret to his effortless cool. Notoriously averse to media attention, he often answers the press in vague monosyllables and has almost permanently donned a pair of sunglasses. Julian seems to have taken a step back now from his own band, telling Pitchfork earlier this week, "there's a bunch of stuff [on the record] I wouldn't have done." This is not the man who delivered a wild-eyed performance of "Take It Or Leave It" on Letterman in 2001, whose bottle-rocket energy sometimes belied his cool facade; this is a recluse stepping into the spotlight. Nowhere is this as clear as when he croons "I don't need anybody with me right now, Monday/Tuesday is my weekend" on the soulful chorus of "Taken For A Fool," which is the closest The Strokes ever get to Room On Fire this time around. Here Julian's absence comes across as charmingly aloof ("You keep taken for a fool all the time, Oh I don't know why,") rather than empty.
Perhaps the most startling thing about this record is the overwhelming abundance of 80s signifiers. The decade has become an increasingly important touchstone for the band--the ghost of The Cars appeared in Nick Valensi's synthesizer-emulating (and amplifier-busting) guitar on Room On Fire's 12:51, and his riff on "The End Has No End" is a direct descendant of Guns 'N Roses "Sweet Child O' Mine." Here eighties influences abound in full. Opener "Machu Picchu" immediately brings to mind Duran Duran and Men At Work before segueing into a riff reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." The dark grind of "You're So Right" evokes Black Sabbath and the production of "Games" is slick with new wave glitter.
It's easy to trash The Strokes for ditching their old formula as if they were trying to change the gold standard. But lets not forget how divisive Is This It really was. Those who didn't hail The Strokes as the saviors of rock derided them as trite rehashers of the past. Regardless, the album sounded more like a prototype than a fully realized record, and that was essential to its charm.
Angles sounds like the blueprint for The Strokes mk. 2 the same way Is This It did a decade prior. However whereas Is This It laid out the basic songwriting MO and left Room On Fire to flesh out the sonics, Angles seems to have accomplished the opposite. "Games," perhaps the most indicative of the Strokes' electronica experiment, is commendable for its adventurous sonic landscape--a desert expanse filled with ideas like scrub brush and tumbleweeds. Yet "Games" cannot transcend its barren landscape; the dry valleys of reverb and the jagged synth-forms are unfamiliar terrain for The Strokes, and the tune leans more heavily on its synthetic wash than on the strength of the songwriting. It lopes forward inoffensively, but without any particularly memorable moments. The Strokes have successfully integrated new sounds into their vocabulary; what remains to be seen is if the songwriting will grow to match this expansion. Casablancas has proven himself capable of a similar feat on Phrazes. The band has yet to discover a formula wherein they are able to deliver their vintage hip-shake arrangements in step with their expanded tonal range.