The Strokes – [Album]

Saturday, 19 March 2011

As big a deal as The Strokes have been on the international rock scene for the last ten years, some people (this writer included) have been left cold and put off by the band. Why? From day one, the argument could be (and was, regularly) made that the band just sounded a little too proud of themselves and sure of their own stature as “rock gods.” This was true from the moment Is This It hit airwaves in 2001 and singer Julian Casablancas came to the party sporting a vocal tone that sounded obviously (and un-ironically) bored; from day one, the singer sounded like he was phoning performances in. The music was fashionably simple, but it was also all fashion and no function; there was no excitement in it, no caring, no energy, no nothing – and while some listeners flocked to it as some kind of backhanded anti-battle cry, the rest of us took the band at face value while we also took a page from the band's own book and treated them with a sense of general disinterest. The band continued in its' anti-trend with Room On Fire before showing a few signs of life on First Impressions of Earth in 2006, but The Strokes' fate had already been sealed for a lot of potential listeners by then; Julian Casablancas was still phoning it in every time he stepped to the mic and those potential listeners who had already been put off simply continued to not care about him or his band.

At some point between 2006 and 2011, The Strokes must have realized that their fashionable ennui was getting as stale as everything else that was huge in 2001, and went back to the drawing board for some new ideas. They decided that maybe doing something interesting would be the new best way to generate interest and so, rather than feigning boredom again, (in keeping with the title of their fourth album, The Strokes are playing that new and different angle.

No one who hears Angles won't be shocked by the creative turn The Strokes have taken this time out. From the opening of “Machu Picchu” (which takes an almost ska-by-way-of-Talking-Heads tone), Casablancas injects a surprising amount of melody into his vocals and adopts a second, slightly higher register for half of his parts to contrast his standard monotone and laissez-faire vocalese while the band screws up a bit of chutzpah and edges courageously out of its' so-stiff-it-might-be-starched comfort zone. Guitarists Nick Valensi ad Albert Hammond Jr. choose to actually chase (rather than follow) each other through the song which adds some genuine (rather than rigid or forced) urgency to the proceedings. None of the changes the band makes is as dramatic as they sound in print (they're quite small, in fact) but, in practice, they just feel revelatory; the quick shift outside of the band's established norm exhibited in “Machu Picchu” will shake all the “meh-sayers” who have watched the band in passing for the last ten years up and finally get them actively listening to The Strokes.

The  jump forward represented by “Machu Picchu” is contrasted by “Under Cover Of Darkness” – which it could be argued is a backslide for the band into its' own sort of orthodoxy – but the combination of those two tracks right at the beginning of the record is pretty indicative of the movements that The Strokes make for the duration of Angles. “Two Kinds Of Happiness” takes some surprisingly convincing New Wave strains out for a spin while “You're So Right” comes closer to Kraut-rock than anyone could have assumed that this band of Millennial scenesters would be capable of before “Games” strips The Strokes' already spare instrumental dynamics down for a compellingly spare performance that, backed as it is by “Call Me Back,” offers listeners a dramatic (like vaudeville) miniature vignette. These sorts of sudden and complete departures from the band's established norm are rattling at first, but it doesn't take long for listeners to hope for more each time the band returns  to its' well-established, “indie rock” comfort zone – which happens four or five times during Angles run-time. Those “backsliding” tracks (while as boring as any of those in the band's previous repertoire) do serve a purpose in their own way too; they imply that the band's confidence in what they're doing isn't as certain as it has been before, so the band almost seems to be looking back over its' should occasionally to make sure their audience is still with them.

As Angles winds to a close with the sublime “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight,” listeners will find themselves heaving a sigh of relief in spite of themselves, because the record is simultaneously the most engaging and demanding in The Strokes' catalogue to date; in ten tracks, the band reaches in as many directions as they're able but, in doing so, they also show more ambition than they ever have previously. That act alone is exciting, but stack a set of songs as solid as these on top and you've got a record that shows a group finally deserving of all the attention it has received over the last decade. Better late than never – if The Strokes keep this up, their music might get really interesting.



The Strokes – “Under Cover Of Darkness” – Angles


Angles comes out via RCA/Sony Music on March 22, 2011. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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