Album Review

The Strokes "Angles"

Brian Ahnmark
Have you ever crossed paths with a crush from the days of your youth, only to find their sparkle diminished by the passing years? Bludgeoned by the ugly stick of age, they've put on weight, cut off (or lost) their hair, grown a beard to hide jowls...

What is that ensuing flood of feeling, that combination of disappointment, thrill, disgust, pity, bewilderment?

It's the feeling elicited by Angles, the long-awaited fourth album from The Strokes.

Remember when these five New Yorkers were supposed to reclaim rock 'n' roll music from the clutches of jailbait pop and boy bands? Sure, the frayed denim and Chuck Taylors and week-old wristbands seemed meticulously calculated – too cool for cool, even. Thankfully, the image rode distant bitch backseat to the music. Debut album Is this It? was literally splitting at the seams with inspired songwriting. Follow-up Room On Fire was similarly brawny and even more concise, but lacked the commercial impact. By the time First Impressions of Earth bowed in January 2006, the fissures and warts were bare. Beyond the standard inner-band turmoil, the buzz was buzzed out and the hype machine had lumbered on; all anyone wanted to talk about was how RCA pushed for a post-Christmas release date, a perceived slap in the collective Strokes face.

A “much-needed” break followed. It would last five agonizing years, as four of the five Strokes released albums with side projects or as solo acts. This newfound independence drastically changed the creative dynamic of the band, which had previously taken its cues exclusively from frontman/songwriter Julian Casablancas. The Strokes went from dictatorship to democracy (sort of), but struggled mightily with the transition.

Upon regrouping, early signs pointed to cringe-inducing disaster. Initial writing attempts stalled because, Casablancas explained, the new democracy could not agree which songs were ready to track. Sessions with renowned producer Joe Chiccarelli disintegrated, causing the band to re-record nine of ten songs at guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.'s home studio. Meanwhile, Casablancas retreated, all but removing himself from the writing process. The four instrumentalists convened to develop material, while Casablancas – the lead singer! – communicated via email, wrote lyrics and tracked vocals separately from the band.

Not surprisingly, the divided atmosphere resulted in a fractured record. Despite it all, the greatness is still there; it's just rusty and a little shy. And just like bumping into the faded prom queen, the awkwardness overwhelms. You're not sure whether to embrace, politely shake hands, mumble small talk, or just avert your eyes and pretend you don't remember the past.

There are four great songs on Angles, and they are all front-loaded onto Side A. Opener “Machu Picchu” sizzles with the old spark, galloping on Nikolai Fraiture's animated bass line and an aggressive dual guitar crunch that assaults with military-like precision. Without a doubt, the finest moments of the album are thanks to the fretwork of Hammond Jr. and lead guitarist Nick Valensi. Witness “Under Cover of Darkness,” an instant classic with a breathtaking arrangement, interlocking lead riffs, hooks to spare and a startling half-time bridge. The song is also noteworthy for Casablancas' use of harmonies; his layered vocals throughout Angles mark a major stylistic development.

Julian has taken his lumps over the years for his nonchalant (borderline disinterested) delivery, and he tries to prove a point throughout Angles by testing the upper reaches of his range. The results are mixed. It works in context, when the moment calls for dramatic release (“Machu Picchu” and “Under Cover of Darkness”), but it grates when misplaced atop sparse instrumentation (“Games” and “Two Kinds of Happiness”).

Valensi's lightning leads electrocute the New Wave-y “Two Kinds of Happiness” back to life, and “Taken For a Fool” represents the Strokes at full wattage, particularly as Casablancas struts his way through the vibrant, chiming chorus.

But from that high watermark of promise, the current rapidly recedes. Side B lacks the immediate appeal of Side A, but also fails to intrigue over time. The curse of The Strokes has always manifested itself in two ways: 1) Stick to the bread & butter “sound,” and get accused of treading water, or 2) Try to venture beyond the comfort zone, and get accused of aimless wandering. On Angles, they add 3) Settling for subpar. Dalliances include the hushed “Call Me Back,” with gently plucked clean electric guitar and a choir of Casablancas. It lacks melodic or emotional punch, and never develops sonically. Attempts to go dark on “You're So Right” and “Metabolism” feel uncomfortably forced, particularly from a band this nimble and spry. “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” and “Gratisfaction” are dull and disjointed, supporting Casablancas' assertion that the band struggled to select songs that were ready to record.

Worse, the band clearly never resolved its own hesitance toward the material. Angles is by no means a bad album, just disappointingly average from a band that once ruled the roost. Mark these words: The luster is still there. It's just trying to escape a shallow grave, coated in five years of dust.

But don't call this a comeback. Not yet.