ALBUM REVIEW: The Strokes - Angles


Giveaway: The Stokes' Angles Vinyl LP + "Grid" T Shirt ?
B- | RCA | 3.22.11 | MOG | AMAZON | INSOUND

Though the Strokes released three albums in the 2000s, by the end of the last decade it appeared they were destined to be remembered not for their music, but for what they shooed-out (nu-metal) and consequently ushered-in (a plethora of indie bands with the definite article in front of their names) on the crest of a wave of monumental hype. It was the right album at the right time, the perfect synthesis of style and substance. But the band couldn’t even take full credit for the album’s aftermath. The White Stripes broke at the same time, and though Jack and Meg were no strangers to artifice, they used style as a springboard for substance. In retrospect, White Blood Cells may be the most influential rock album of the 2000s. With each album the White Stripes artfully grew and shifted. They lived and breathed music, past and present. On the other hand, the Strokes seemed just fine with being the Strokes. The harshest criticism of the Strokes’ legacy is directed at their sparse post-Is This It material.Room on Fire, though warmly greeted, was eventually (and unjustly) written-off as a lesser rehash of their debut. The Strokes attempted to expand on their sound with 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, but the result was a bloated misfire. It intensified the long-nagging feeling that Is This It may have been an anomaly, or maybe even a fluke.

So I approached Angles, the fourth Strokes album, with a large degree of skepticism. I felt it was superfluous. Despite their uneven recent material, the band had enough cultural capital to continue to headline music festivals for years as a nostalgia act. They already had a bounty of paychecks ahead. Why further dilute their credibility with a new album? A few spins of Angles not only reminded why I loved the Strokes in the first place, but also made me think I’d gotten the story wrong all along.

This re-evaluation is first prompted by “Under Cover of Darkness,” the album’s lead single and the Strokes’ best song to date. While the band has a formula, there’s more to the Strokes than a surefire algorithm for producing factory-like results. Their numerous imitators could never match Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti’s metronomic rhythm section, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s knack for turning repetition and guitar-noodling into a hook, and Julian Casablancas’ ability to casually unspool an unforgettable melody. “Under Cover of Darkness” is the Platonic Ideal of a Strokes song. The song skips atop the up-beat, so jaunty and simple, with a sucker-punch chorus that instantly channels the melodic brilliance of Is This It and Room on Fire. The Strokes may be just fine with being the Strokes, but they’re also the best at it. By contrast, could a new album by also-rans like the French Kicks, the Ponys, or the Mooney Suzuki be this vital and exciting? Feel free to Google those bands before you answer with an emphatic “no.”

Angles is more than a recapitulation of the band’s salad days. The sonic exploration of First Impressions is pushed further but also reigned-in by the Strokes’ signature template. Though the Velvet Underground remain a heavy influence on their sound (especially the Velvet’s weirder side, see the album’s weakest track “Call Me Back”), Angles shines as a whiplash tour of New Wave, from Blondie’s island dalliances (“Machu Picchu”) to the Talking Heads (“Two Kinds of Happiness”). Indeed, the early-80s are proudly on display right on Angles’ cover, with its Day Glo colors and proto-CGI abstract artwork. Improbably, Angles also finds the band at their most modern: Casablancas’ chanting overdubs and robotic lead vocals on the cold and twitchy “You’re So Right” nod at Radiohead (though he claims the song is influenced by R.E.M.). Sure, the Strokes steal with abandon, but unlike lesser bands, they don’t merely imitate – they recast and often improve on their inspirations.

The Strokes - "Two Kinds of Happiness"

Angles is the first Strokes album that doesn’t sound like a reaction to Is This It. It finds the band at their most confident, and their most relaxed. The band never could have written the breezy “Games” or the big dumb grin of “Gratisfaction” ten years ago. Nor would they have wanted to. But for all of this growth, Angles ultimately succeeds because the Strokes still know how to write a good melody. With so few decent guitar rock albums being produced nowadays, a great one comes at a premium; when it’s also a Strokes album, it comes with a sigh of relief.

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