It begins like an early-nineties tropical breeze, a deceptively poppy shimmer-riff throwing off the shackles of what we thought we knew about the quintet of New York boys who call themselves The Strokes. What originated as an inseparable gang of misfits, a decade later, resembles very little of what they once were. As a matter of artistic exploration that’s a wonderful thing, but for the relationships among members and possibly the band’s longevity, it may mean something else entirely.
Angles, The Strokes’ fourth LP and first in five years, is less a deconstruction of garage-pop sensibilities than an eager redefining of a future that seems uncertain even now. This isn’t the fun, of us-vs-the-world gangland sonic survivalism of old, and the reflections on record speak of a delicate democracy after half a decade of accelerated transformation among members. Four of the five bandmates worked on side projects or solo albums in the space between, and while Angles is a higher-energy spectacle than 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, the fragility of chemistry and tugging of conflicting confidence shines through – sometimes for the worse, but most often to the great benefit of the music.
When opener Machu Picchu explodes into a gallop of chirping six-strings, frontman Julian Casablancas crooning about "wearing a jacket made of meat," we return to the magically delicious hooks and sonic climaxes that sucked us in on their 2001 debut Is This It.
What separated Angles from the previous Strokes work is that it finally captures an energy of the musicians playing off of one another. Moretti delivers far more complex rhythms this time around (Two Kinds of Happiness), while the string dynamic between Hammond and Valensi takes new turns unencumbered by a cool aesthetic.
Meanwhile, Casablancas’ stylish alienation of old, the monotonous narrative apathy that translated to popped-leather-collar cool, has been thankfully laid to rest. He pushes himself through passion and soulfulness to a connecting point, even exposing a new falsetto dynamic.
The choppy guitars and lo-fi art rock are still a presence, though not the dominant force that accompanied Casablancas’ creative domination in the group. Julian played benevolent dictator to the band’s first three albums, but their fourth finds guitarists Nick Valensi & Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti playing significantly larger roles in the creative contributions. The result is a far less defined personality, a greater patchwork of sound that pulls from a varied assortment of influence.
The album’s debut single – and most recognizably Strokesish – Under Cover of Darkness was met with polarizing first-impressionism, one side of the fence heralding a new era of danceable leather pop digs, the other bemoaning the grandiosity of sameness beneath the big production and catchy snap-beats. Truly, the track takes a few listens to achieve proper appreciation for the escalating earnest, and only took full root through the translation of their Saturday Night Live performance in early March.
Ultimately, the track embodies The Strokes circa 2011 – slightly disjointed, bubbling tension beneath a thick current of classic-pop danciness and emotive yearning that recalls their original impact, but attacks nearly every preordained perimeter with a progressively restless spirit. The bridge recalls the finer emotive points of Is This It, Julian straining through "And I’m tired of all your friends / Listening at your door / I want what’s better for you / So long my adversary".
The explosively frantic solo of 80’s-pop Cars impression burst Two Kinds of Happiness forgives the Cool Runnings reminiscent stony-bland vocals, with gorgeous guitar arrangements and a high-reaching rising sound in the chorus. Its considerable impression is unfortunately negated by follower You’re So Right, a mess that incorporates Radiohead’s knack for skittery beats under minor-key melancholies while laying bare the band’s new wave fixations with a monotonous vocal drone.
The experiment heads in better directions with the Valensi-penned Taken For a Fool, melodic grandeur given breathing room under layered guitars before capturing the familiar Strokes spirit with a breakdown and a playfully confident bridge melody: "I know everyone goes any damn place they like / Hope this goes over well on the toxic radio..". The chorus makes it all worthwhile, Valensi and Hammond symbiotically muscling up through every possible opening.
The lovely highlight of Gratisfaction channels early upbeat Billy Joel in a Thin Lizzy dress, with doubled guitar leads and Casablancas mimicking the sing-speak vocals of Phil Lynott. As far as stylistic departures, you don’t get much further off the Strokes rails than this.
While Metabolism comes within range of channeling Muse’s rock-opera grandiosity, it anchors to Earth and keeps from reaching the orbit of absurdity with melodically chopping guitars and a refusal to take the plight of heart that ridiculously serious.
The Strokes debuted closer Life Is Simple In The Moonlight on their SNL performance last month, selling this skeptic rather immediately through its fifth-gear chorus leaps out of a dreamy base structure with shades of Brazilian bossa nova and slow-stroll yearning.
A schizophrenic and largely transitional album, Angles is both a sign of disconcerting tension and promise for what the future may hold for the New York quintet, if they can complete the metamorphosis and continue down the path of their own evolution.
CraveOnline Rating: 6.5 out of 10