The Strokes, Angles [2011]

Posted by Greg , Tuesday, March 22, 2011 9:48 PM

I was cautiously optimistic for Angles, the first new album from The Strokes in over five years.  "Under Cover of Darkness" is a great first single, and possibly the catchiest song penned by the band since their debut Is This It (2001).

However, "Under Cover of Darkness" does not represent the rest of the album.  The songs that comprise Angles can be grouped into three sections: 1) Two fun, upbeat opening tracks, 2) three songs that sound like they belong on Julian Casablancas' solo album, and 3) a mixed bag in the album's latter half.

And then, all of a sudden, it's over. The whole experience left me wondering what the fuck just happened.  The album is only 34 minutes long, and while that's normally a good thing for a Strokes record (First Impressions of Earth was weighed down by its length), it feels like it never really got started.

The reggae-influenced "Machu Picchu" gets things off to a good start.  It takes about a minute to really get into a groove, but the chorus is extremely strong.

As stated above, "Under Cover of Darkness" is the catchiest Strokes song in a decade.  My only gripe is that the vocals are far too buried in the mix.  I don't know enough about the physical process of how music is recorded onto CD and mass produced, but it seems like this is a technical issue and not an artistic decision.  It's not a low-fidelity effect as on the band's first album; it's like the volume is too low.  Then again, the effect is more noticeable in my car than on home speakers, so maybe I just need a new set of wheels.

"Two Kinds of Happiness," "You're So Right," and "Taken for a Fool" feel like they could have been lifted from Casablancas' solo album Phrazes for the Young (2009).  That's not necessarily a bad thing, although it wasn't at all what I expected from a Strokes album that was supposed to be more of a collaborative effort than any of their previous work. Overall, though, they round out a very solid first half of Angles.  It's not what I thought I was going to hear, but I keep wanting to play these songs again.  This section of the album may not capture the listener's attention on a first listen, but these three songs have strong "grower" potential.

It's after this point where things begin to unravel.  "Games" and "Call Me Back" halt the momentum built in the first half of the album.  I don't begrudge the band their attempt to mix things up, but I didn't find either of these songs to be particularly interesting.

"Gratisfaction" somewhat rescues the tempo.  The track could pass for a Billy Joel cover, and I guess that's okay.

"Metabolism" sounds like it was written for First Impressions of Earth.  The guitars and drums create a menacing atmosphere, but it boggles the mind why Casablancas insists on droning on like this sometimes.  The guy is a much better singer when he's not drawing every syllable out until his self-loathing ruminations are barely decipherable:  "IIII.... waaaaant... to be... outraaaaageous / But insiiiide.... I knoooow... I'm plaaaain / Sooo plaaain."  Ugh.  Somebody give this man a hug.  This is the kind of stuff that torpedoed some of the songs on the band's last album and his solo release.

Album-closer "Life is Simple in the Moonlight" is an interesting new direction, especially for a band that generally avoids ballads, but it doesn't really end in a This-is-the-End-of-the-Album moment.  It's probably not fair to expect every Strokes record to end with a snarling rocker like Is This It's "Take it or Leave It," but Angles just feels like it's missing one last great song.  "Taken for a Fool" probably would have worked better as the album closer.

It may sound like I disliked Angles, and really that's not true.  It's just that I came into it with lowered expectations, and the band didn't really do much to prove me wrong.  When you're talking about a band as great as the Strokes, that's somewhat of a bummer.  Five years is a long time between records, though, and from various interviews the members of the band have given, it sounds like this album was tough to make.  Casablancas, the Strokes' unofficial leader, purposefully withdrew from many of the recording sessions, claiming it was meant to encourage the rest of the band to be more involved in the writing process.  In an interview with Pitchfork, guitarist Nick Valensi admitted "I feel like we have a better album in us, and it's going to come out soon."  In that light, Angles is the sound of a band dusting off the cobwebs.  I'm okay with that.  I also think Angles will be one of those albums that gets better over time.

Anyway, enough of that.  Since I know everyone likes the personal stories...
I got home from work tonight and immediately told my wife she'd like "Machu Picchu" when she asked me about the new album.  I started the song and began to dance seductively (that's right, people, seductively)...

"It sounds like the other one," she said, referring to "11th Dimension," the synth-laden lead single from Phrazes for the Young.

"Hold on!" I said as she began to walk away, "You're going to miss the good part."

She was already halfway down the stairs, though, and all I heard was a yelped "No!"

Of course, this story is completely uninteresting to anyone who hasn't met me and my wife.  (Side note: she has red hair and her name is Jenny.  That pretty much makes her an indie rock goddess.)  But I wanted to relate it for a few reasons: 1) It's the only way I can get her to read this blog, and 2) the point is that when it comes to Angles, your mileage may vary.

Angles is available in its entirety for streaming at thestrokes.com.

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