Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Strokes: Angles

It is, I think, physically impossible to review the latest Strokes album without mentioning how awesome Is This It was. I would love to be reviewing that album, as I think even ten years later it stands as a shining example of rock in the 21st century. But time has passed, the Strokes have released a few albums of varying quality, and returned with their fourth effort, which forges in a different direction. It is different from Is This It, that's for sure. And I, personally, would never see "not being that album" as a flaw that would keep me from enjoying it. While that's a valid approach, it's one that has been done every way possible. I'm too interested in talking about this particular album to drag that one back up.

There are a lot of criteria you can consider when judging an album. Some have a particular statement they want to make in songwriting form. Some have a sound to explore across various tracks. Some just have a few bona fide hits/highlights and the filler is merely not bad. The latter approach, I think, is an underrated way of scoring an album, and it has been the case with a lot of albums I've loved this year. I know where my favourites are, and I'm happy to listen to the tracks in between to get to them. Among Angles' ten tracks, we have four, five, maybe six real highlights, and the in-between tracks never feel tacked on, boring, bland, rote, phoned-in or weak. This is an album of definite craft, which manifests even when a real catchy hook is absent.

It begins as strongly as anything I've heard all year, with "Machu Picchu," crystalline rhythm establish the album's dark dancefloor aesthetic. It builds to one of many great Casablancas choruses on the album, where he shows off he's not just a garage punk screamer, he can do a good Jim Morrison croon, showing a cocky swagger with a poetic distance. This is followed by a crashing guitar echo that reminds me of running lines on the school gym floor. It gets your pulse going. "Under Cover of Darkness" has the band at real top form, with a spiky opening riff unlike anything I can recall (truly "angular,") and swinging like the bigger brother of the earlier "Someday," with its soaring chorus, those scribbling choked-up riffs, and that solo which does as any good solo should, takes the driver's seat and seems to sing the song in microcosm without words. I can't praise the guitars on this album enough, nor the drums, which crash and bang and cut loose when they need to, but also restrain and keep a tight funk beat when called upon.

Speaking of funk, there's "Taken for a Fool," which is an otherworldly, shadowy bass workout, one of the most focused and driving individual tracks on the set. All the pieces seem to come together, and it's a really gripping tune that can easily get people worked into a frenzy. It sits between the buzzing, muttering "You're So Right" and the moaning "Games." There's a definite sound on the album, with the band sounding almost inhuman, disaffected, beaten down, defeated and robotic. It's played out through these tracks between the "highlights," and sometimes within them, since music is often a balance between the two (read: rhythm and melody, doy.) Then sometimes, they switch back to too-human versions of themselves, bristling with life, rage and romance. "Two Kinds of Happiness" is a highlight in this regard, which I could see some disagreeing on. It starts out bouncy, but with a weary vocal, until Julian's voice seems to get completely overtaken by his bandmates sending out a soaring, anthemic, almost U2-like (but in a good way) score. It also has some of the most thoughtful lyrics ("One's devotion, one's just a ring,") even for a band known for being clever and observational.

There's also "Gratisfaction," with its "Never gonna get my love" riff, which is among the more pop moments for a band that has always delighted in blurring the lines between songwriting and pure rock. It's a groove you can take home with you. It's glitzy, and as with many Strokes songs, it seems to be about the darkness lurking beneath. This is preceded by the shimmering, passive aggressive quiet of "Call Me Back" (opening lyric: "Wait time is the worst / I can hardly sit.") which never builds the way you'd hope, but has a really nice moment in its "I don't know why I came down ... I hear a voice..." refrain, in a way romanticizing impatience. It's a fair bit more experimental than even the rest of the album. It's another track that indicates the band's interest in creating moods beyond merely making barnstorming rockers... an interest that was indicated, frankly, by the opening track of their first album. Its gentle conclusion leads perfectly to the crash-and-bang of "Gratisfaction," showing just how key sequencing can be.

The band then lays it all on the table with the ruthless, ominous "Metabolism," whose backing track reminds me of a Bowser battle from a Mario game, and a mean vocal. The song itself is not as great as other tracks as a composition, but like "Call Me Back," and others is a triumph of performance, shows the breadth and strength of their abilities. "Life Is Simple In The Moonlight" ends it on a high note (although even the albums "low notes" are pretty damn good,) playing an damn effective "quit-loud" dynamic for all it's worth, between vulnerability and toughness, freedom and restraint. Most of these songs don't sound like Is This It, but most of them manage to be quite awesome. They go for a setting and mood, and explore the appeal within them: then come the hooks and solos.

The more I listen to it, and the more I think and write about it, the more I like it. The Strokes are magicians, distracting you with songs that seem normal, but hit you in ways similar, lesser ones on the radio don't. They not only know their craft, their strengths and their scope, they're interested in expanding outward. They're a bit like 1970's David Bowie now: you feel like you know what they're up to, but they have hidden reserves, tricks up their sleeves. The point, which I always appreciate in my rock & roll, is that there is a point: they're reaching for something, rather than resting on what's expected, and they do it marvelously.

Buy this album now: iTunes // //

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