Artwork by Andrew Peters
Artist: The Strokes
When traffic for the free download of “Under Cover Of Darkness” crashed the Strokes’ website on Feb. 9, many took to the blogosphere to hear from luckier fans how the single sounded. There were exclamations of a return to form; that the Strokes had relocated the source of 2001’s legend-in-the-making, Is This It.
Yes, drummer Fab Moretti’s patty-whack is reminiscent, as is frontman Julian Casablancas’ prechorus attack plan (“We got the right to live, fight to use it/Got everything and you can just choose it”). The guitars– Nick Valensi on lead, Albert Hammond Jr. on rhythm, and Nikolai Fraiture on bass– possess the chirpy tone of early Strokes releases. But from its drippy introduction to the chorus’s strut, the song’s diversity of parts could be a manual for 2006’s First Impressions Of Earth. The boys– who’ve made a slew of congested solo albums since– no longer know parsimony. “Under Cover of Darkness” plays a bit like quantum physicists trying to explain arithmetic, fumbling to recall 2003’s Room On Fire.
Caution is advised: Angles is anything but a composite of the first three albums. “Last Nite” was many nights ago, so it goes without saying that it won’t please everyone. If Is This It was an anachronistic tale of a damn good night drunk on post-punk, Angles is the ten year anniversary in the new clothes of New Wave.
Introduction “Machu Picchu” is upfront where the single failed to be. Familiar in that it’s guitar-centric with a deep city drawl pointing the way. Drastically different in execution. Valensi sweats flecks of Peruvian mojo from his fretboard. The other members stir with exotic passivity. Arriving at the chorus, the band blows the jungle asunder with conquistador relish and Casablancas lets out his up-against-a-riot-shield caterwaul. It’s one of the album’s few live contenders and yet isn’t really loud or fast, just suspenseful.
Moretti chops at plangent, MTV-heyday sulk “Two Kinds Of Happiness”, before the band receives a nonsensical jolt from the fan-cannon and plays a spilly rundown as only they can. The verse’s lo-fi vancancy is one of Angles’ big dares, but while the typical Strokes bath of noise may please fans, it feels indecisive.
Angles’ more sinister tracks sound curiously like the wreckage from First Impressions’ interminable second act. They actually pull through on “You’re So Right”, Casablancas’ digitized Jekyll sinking into a bedheaded Hyde. However, there’s also “Metabolism”, whose souless minor-key riff can’t burn off the baggage of last album’s “Electricityscape”. Much of the album emulates the music of David Byrne’s 1984, but “Metabolism” lives in Orwell’s. We know Nick Valensi can shred deviled solos while the rhythm section busts its ass. But the Strokes, as a unit, collapse under these moments.
As caustic interviews might suggest, Angles carries a Reagan-era likeness deeper than just synthpop homage: The guys are competing fiercely with each other. Fraiture and Valensi counterpoise every melodramatic slur of Casablancas on “Taken For A Fool”, before revving into a brightly buttoned chorus. In the moment, with the band meeting up for a sunny rendezvous, the economy booms. But when asked to take responsibility for undisciplined songwriting, they seem wide-eyed and unsure: “Call Me Back” lands smoothly on a lunar chorus, but barely escapes plane-radio platitudes.
Luckily, exceptionally British-sounding “Gratisfaction” defribrillates the album. The Strokes finally play like they have arenas to fill. Everything about the song makes it a setlist breadwinner, from its working class punch up of a sing-along to the supercharged scoot of Hammond behind every word.
Not as luckily, the coveted last track is wasted on tin-can transmission “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight”. How we got from finishing Strokes releases on Badass-Is-My-First-Name showstoppers to We’re-Mature-Now-That-We’re-Thirty ballads, I don’t know. They reach for something gallant in the chorus and the solo, though trying for this, charms with its gibbous diddle. Yet none of that really changes that the verse sounds like a local band’s proudest moment. It’s a big remonstrance on a album that at times glimmers with IOUs delivering five years’ interest but occasionally is a big snub.
Angles has no lack of ideas, only a lack of focus, the perfectionism packaging the Strokes’ best. Whereas the presence of one-night stand stories and solos after first choruses ensured us that things actually happened on the streets of New York, it seems here that Casablancas believes what he sings on “Games”, that he lives in an empty world. Angles’ shallowest parts believe it, too. But its best moments don’t live in the past tense. It’s not too late to change, which queenly uppercut “Gratisfaction” proves, but if they’re going to get their shit together they should probably stop fighting, or perhaps, fight a little harder.
Grade: B (86)