There was a time when the news of a new Strokes album being imminent would send shockwaves through the Internet. That time was 2003. Since then, there was 2006's First Impressions of Earth, an album that found the usually confident Strokes losing their sound to Cars-mannerisms, and then a glut of solid (Fab Moretti's Little Joy), weak (Julian Casablancas' Phrazes for the Young and Albert Hammond Jr.'s solo albums) and plain awful (Nikolai Fraiture's Nickel Eye) solo projects, alleged trips to rehab (Hammond), complaints about band harmony (Casablancas) and effusive words delivered in breathless reports in British mags (Fraiture's often optimistic reports to NME). Only Nick Valensi remained unscathed.
But the Fab Five from NYC have pulled it back together for Angles, their fourth LP in 10 years. It's reportedly the return to form that is always promised when bands stink for an album (or three), but the world has changed since the Strokes first made the downtown cool they co-opted from the 1970s CBGB set mainstream. We're about to find out if all those bands diluting the Strokes brand (the solo projects and every rock band to put out an album on a British major label between 2002 and 2007) has changed anything. We'll know on March 22.
Somewhere, a PR person is very mad at Julian Casablancas. There are many things a frontman should probably not do before his band's long-awaited fourth album is released, and "express serious doubts as to its quality" is pretty high up on that list. Especially when it turns out that those doubts make total sense.
Most of Angles finds The Strokes trying as hard as possible not to sound like The Strokes. This is done, in part, by recycling the least palatable parts of their last LP, and interpolating them with weird, near-atonal choruses. "You're So Right" sounds like a weaker "Juicebox" until its anti-chorus, which drones on like Sci-Fi Channel background music. "Call Me Back" sees Casablancas donning the tattered balladeer outfit he first tried on First Impressions of Earth's "Ask Me Anything"; its weird interlude comes in the form of what sounds like cultish chanting. The song is actually kind of affecting, the only problems being that 1) there are literally one thousand bands making nostalgic synth-pop right now, with 20% of them doing it better than Casablancas ever could, and 2) we don't look to Casablancas to make us feel warm and cuddly, we look to Casablancas to make us feel cool and untouchable.
The album has the feeling of, say, a latter-day U2 show: yes, the audience will indulge your new stuff, but you know they're just waiting to hear "Sunday Bloody Sunday." "Under Cover of Darkness" is exactly what every Strokes fan wants to hear, having long ago given up on the prospect artistic maturity; its guitar line proves, at the very least, that Nick Valensi has been putting his half-decade as the only Stroke without a side-project to good use. When it was released as this album's first single, it looked like the debate around this album would be "nice, The Strokes are back to doing the Strokes!" vs. "The Strokes, like any band, need to change their sound." That would have been preferable.
There are a couple of other moments like "Under Cover of Darkness," though, where that classic Casablancas charm is allowed to shine through and that distant slogan of "this band will save rock and roll" begins to sound at least slightly less absurd. "Gratisfaction" is as pleasingly ridiculously as its title, its Thin Lizzy-isms made only slightly less enjoyable by the fact that Free Energy was doing it better last year. "Taken For a Fool" has the album's best tossed off Casablancanism ("Monday/Tuesday is my weekend") and a chorus that brings to mind that three year period where Casablancas couldn't have written a bad chorus if he tried.
That things don't sound quite so effortless anymore might have something to do with the way the album was recorded: this time around, every Stroke had a say, and Casablancas--who in the past has written all the songs himself--contributed his vocals from afar. The band seemed fractured and confused in the months leading up to this release, but back then there was the prospect that all that tension had led to something brilliant. Instead, it's led to something that sounds fractured, tense, and confused--when it's not sounding like The Strokes, which is all anybody really wanted anyway.