After giving their fans a full five years to rid themselves of the foul taste of First Impressions Of Earth, The Strokes return to an irrevocably altered music scene with far less fanfare and fuss involved for their fourth full-length, Angles. And while the garage-rock revival that the band helped launch has been refashioned considerably (and left for dead and been born again, ad infinitum), the glossy, polished sound that the group reaches for on their uneven batch of new songs is decidedly steeped in synthetic 80s influences, mostly abandoning the slackerish twist on Post-punk that coloured their impressive early work. And while there are elements of all the members side-projects threaded throughout Angles (only guitarist Nick Valensi didn’t release an album during the band’s lengthy hiatus), the disparate influences and approaches only serve to muddle up the Strokes signature sound and sadly does nothing to expand or improve on it.
The album starts out positively enough, with the jangly, reggae-tinged beat of ‘Machu Picchu’ leading directly into the dynamically engaging lead single, ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ (the most “Strokes-sounding” the band get on this record by a wide margin). And even though there are distinct hints of U2′s ‘Angel Of Harlem’ in the chorus of ‘Darkness,’ the band sounds inventive and invigorated on these opening numbers. But that refreshing spirit starts to fade fast as the album dissolves into a mishmash of diverse styles and sounds, none of which really suits the band’s prominent strengths or their once-potent spirit.
‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’ sounds like a cheap knockoff of the Cars, with Julian Casablancas sounding rather disinterested and distant (indeed, he did record his vocal parts in a separate studio after the band sent him their song sketches), while the grimy pulse of ‘You’re So Right’ never comes close to catching fire. It just sounds like the band is stuck running on the spot at this point, rather than taking some pronounced steps forward sonically or artistically.
Thankfully, the bright and buoyant ‘Taken For A Fool’ comes along to give Angles a mid-album boost, sounding like a lively outtake from Casablancas’ considerably underrated solo effort, Phrazes For The Young. In fact, I was hoping that the new Strokes would sound more like Phrazes, but alas, Julian ceded a majority of the songwriting to his bandmates for the first time, leaving them to flesh out most of the songs on their own while he was out on tour for his album. And that shift in recording strategy is quite pronounced throughout the album, as it never really sounds like the band is on the same page, musically (or in the studio at the same time, apparently), bouncing around from one idea to the next over the course of each song’s three frantic minutes, with the results winding up even more loose and unfocused than their last release.
Side Two is a real slog, with the band clearly out of fresh ideas at this point, seemingly just squeezing out enough numbers to fill out a full-length. ‘Games’ comes across as a listless attempt to capture the upbeat, disco rhythms of Phrazes best moments, while ‘Call Me Back’ is just a half-finished whimper of a song that would have been rightly relegated to an obscure b-side back when the band was hitting on all cylinders, if it was even released at all. But sadly it gets worse on the Billy Joel-like hodgepodge of ‘Gratisfaction’ (as if making up a word for the song title is enough to hold our interest), while ‘Metabolism’ sounds like a continuation of the worst moments from First Impressions.
It’s genuinely frustrating and downright distressing to hear a band that you once loved absolutely drowning under the weight of their own expectations (as diminished as they were) on this record, with no real signs of life or the modern, street-fighting spirit that drew you in to their music in the first place. And by the time the band limps home on album closer ‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight,’ with Julian mumbling, “Don’t try to stop us, get out of the way,” you wonder where the band thinks they are truly heading in the future, and if anyone will still be interested enough to follow them once they finally get there.