Album Review: The Strokes – ‘Angles’

This image is from Etsy.com, but it don’t know the artist…

The Strokes have made an incredibly polarizing album.  At least that’s what I think after having spent five years hyping it up to myself.  Angles leaked slowly over the last few weeks, then completely a few days ago.  Now, being my favorite band, I may or may not have listened to it. So yeah, you’ll probably get to hear what I think of every song later.  For now, a prerequisite to listening is in order…

I believe that what one thinks of Angles comes down to their other musical tastes.  Those who like rock won’t love the weird song excursions and the synthesizer direction, while those a bit more open to new influences might dig them.  The Strokes have put together a record of drastically different songs, and I highly doubt they expected every fan to like every song, as seemed to be the goal before.  This LP is more of a palette cleanser, and looks as if it was made so that each member felt like they contributed to form a new band unity.  This agenda was accomplished, and out of it came a few great songs and a few mediocre ones.  Just as First Impressions of Earth did in 2006, Angles pushes the boundaries on Strokes formula with ultimately mixed results.

The 80s production values are everywhere, and I imagine this was Julian’s doing based on his recent solo album.  I’d say that overall it’s not a bad look for the Strokes, who usually occupy a more 70s ideal.  Where some songs falter though, is in the amount of 80s nostalgia.  It’s one thing to have a synth in the background to flush out a tune, but for it to lead a whole Strokes song is sacrilege to most fans, myself included.  Still, open-mindedness says that it’s technically possible for it to work, and it almost did the few times it was tried.  I think that maybe the band was too new at experimenting with the instrument to give those songs their full potential.  Instead, they come off as half finished or maybe even demos.

This leads to another problem, and the solution to the one above.  All of the band drama has been well documented, so it’s not worth going into.  What is worth going into is how so many songs here were written by multiple members or without Julian’s heavy involvement.  When this happens, people are forced to accommodate to each other instead of pursuing a single vision of a song.  This leads to mash-ups of style and substance, and while it works if there is a leader guiding the process, it struggles when too many voices come into play.  That’s the main issue I have with Angles, not the style but the substance.  The crazy part is that the album still somehow came out better than what most other groups could muster under ideal conditions.  So are you ready for the RCSC breakdown?  Good.

Song for song, the ones where Julian Casablancas doesn’t have a strong say falter significantly.  In a sense, Julian is the Strokes personified.  As their voice and main songwriter, he was forced to stretch his bounds, melodies, and even voice to accompany songs in keys and styles he normally wouldn’t lean toward.  If the voice of the band isn’t happy with something, the group turns into a cover band led by somebody out of their element.  This is evident in places, so let’s see where.

“Machu Picchu” – Wow it’s 1983 again, and Neon Trees doesn’t even exist yet.  This song is honestly just cool.  It has the tone of an opening song, but it’s very flushed out and interesting.  Written by just Nick and Julian, it sounds guided and structurally sound.  Julian doesn’t struggle and maintains a calm demeanor to great effect.  I’d say overall that it is a fantastic step in a direction nobody expected, and the strut on the chorus crushes everything.

“Under Cover of Darkness” – This was a great song to have as a single and is the group’s touted “return to form.”  Considering the singles on FIoE weren’t nearly as weird as some of the songs here, I don’t really know what they were supposed to return to.  Maybe concise pop hooks?  If that’s the case, they did it exquisitely on this tune, Julians distressed vocals and all.  You get used to them quickly though, even the lengthy “Are you oooookaaaaaaaaaayyy?!”

“Two Kinds of Happiness” – People seem to have problems with this song, but I think it’s fantastic.  Any issue probably comes from the fact that it doesn’t sound quite like a Strokes song instrumentally, but if you listen past that then you’ll hear a well written piece of music and it deserves a bit more credit.  The Cars are all over this, but the explosion of the chorus might be the most intense thing the band has done, topping “Juicebox” and maybe even “Ize of the World.”  This song is going to be crazy live that’s for sure.

“You’re So Right” – While almost everybody hated this song on first listen, it has indeed grown on many.  It’s not necessarily bad and has admittedly gotten stuck in my head a few times, but I attribute that to its repetitiveness rather than its quality.  It has an odd structure and is probably the biggest departure from the Strokes trademark sound.  Nikolai wrote it and it sounds like Julian tampered with it to resemble his solo album, but the fact that all members agreed to put this on the album is intriguing enough to keep me listening.  Maybe they see something nobody else does?

“Taken for a Fool” – Now this sounds like everybody’s favorite band.  Surprisingly, it was written by Nick Valensi, but Julian seems to have put his stamp on it, at the very least vocally.  It has great structure, and like UCoD, every part is memorable and catchy.  I’ve started to notice a trend that the verses on Angles are very scattered and jumpy, while the choruses are pretty straight and epic.  Agree?

“Games” – Well, it seems nobody can agree on this song.  They either take it or leave it (corny?), and I’m someplace in the middle.  It reminds me of MGMT or Yeasayer, and while it has some cool parts, it ultimately meanders and falls flat.  There’s no hook, and it seems like an experiment gone on too long.  At 3:48, I was entertained for about two minutes (really one) before losing interest and disregarding the fact that it doesn’t have an ending.  It’s ultimately just a messy song with some neat bits, and it really pains me to write that.  The synth might actually be the best quality, but the fact that it doesn’t bear the stamp of a song is what truly brings it down.  Oh, and the extended instrumental part could have been heavily tweaked in terms of length.

“Call Me Back” – The ‘slow jam’ that’s supposed to be a palette cleanser is in desperate need of a defibrillator jump about halfway through.  It sadly never comes, and I’m pretty sure we’re left with the sound of a song convulsing and dying.  (Haha, that analogy was too clever for me to not right.)  Seriously though, the song starts great.  The whispery vocal part it yields to is unexpected but actually really cool when you get used to it, but I just can’t prepare myself for the second ‘climax.’  It’s so disjointed from the rest of the song that it doesn’t make any sense and sounds like they ran out of ideas.  This fits right along with Julian’s statement that the song just kind of came together from a few different parts.  It literally did.

“Gratisfaction” – Zombie Thin Lizzy return from the grave, decide to cover Steely Dan, and proceed to rock it!  That about sums it up, methinks.  The song has good structure and is short enough that it stays interesting, plus the solo is cool.  I like how happy everybody sounds on this track, like they actually enjoyed making it.  I actually start snapping my fingers every time it comes on now, and suddenly I feel a whole lot cooler than I actually am.  The song is superbly retro and thankfully it’s a solid track to boot.

“Metabolism”- I find this song really hard to remember off the top of my head because all I can think is “Heart in a Cage” meets “Ize of the World.”  It has the feel of the former and the wanderings of the latter, but it doesn’t have something truly catchy to bring it all together.  I hate that I’m saying it like it is, for I really would like nothing more than to tell you how great every part of Angles is.  This song, once again, isn’t bad.  It’s just slightly forgettable and pales in comparison to other songs the band has written, especially the ones around it.  It’s like comparing “Fear of Sleep” to “You Only Live Once.”  You just don’t, and instead secretly listen to one way more than the other.

“Life is Simple in the Moonlight”- The album ends with another gem, which pulls off the slow game while staying melodic and interesting, not to mention just good.  Julian wrote it and it shows; the song has an excellent pacing to it and the structure is spot on.  It’s a perfect closer to the album, and ends with “Don’t try to stop us, get out of the way,” which acts as a gleam in the eye of every fan hoping to hear more from the Strokes within the next five years.  Let’s keep hoping…

There you have it, a lean ten song review!  That wasn’t so bad, was it?

What still needs to be said is that most Strokes songs usually take a while to get into.  I remember not really getting “The Modern Age” until I heard the pure power of its live version.  “Between Love and Hate” took such a long time before sinking in as well.  My opinions of Angles will probably change over time, so I’ll definitely be revisiting this review in the future.  Maybe in six months?  I don’t know, but it’ll happen eventually.

My main statement now is that Angles is very good, but not great.  There is too much substance instead of solid songwriting, and the album is hampered by having such vastly different contributing factors.  Julian and Nick (surprisingly welcome) should stick to the songwriting with only some contribution from Albert, Fab, and Nikolai on occasion.  The latter are all talented, but not in the vein the Strokes occupy in the minds of their fans.  Now, if they all contributed to each other’s side projects, that would be a different story altogether.  An awesome story, in fact…

The Strokes – Under Cover of Darkness

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