Review Summary: The Strokes' first album in five years shows the band can still pull those old tricks.
Did you know that Beavis and Butthead is beginning to produce new episodes? Mike Judge said in an interview for Rolling Stone that it was high time for Beavis and Butthead to make a reappearance, because ridiculous pop music was once again dominating the charts and beginning to take itself far too seriously.
It’s an era that’s Gaga for, well, you know, and sixteen-year-olds with sixties haircuts top the pops. Are the dimwitted adventures of Beavis and Butthead enough to shake things up, or do they need some backup? In this case, The Strokes represent the musical front of a dual attack against overproduced pop.
This is exactly what happened in 2001, when Britney, Xtina and Jessica were fighting for the top slot. Along came The Strokes with their debut album, Is This It?, and single-handedly ushered in the garage-band movement of the early ‘aughts.
But will lightning strike twice for Julian Casablancas and crew? All the elements are in place here – simple, almost simplistic arrangements, crunchy three-chord guitar, and vocals that swing wildly from barbiturate drone to jagged yelp. Yes, although we haven’t heard much from the Noise Boys of New York for the past five years, they’ve been busy at work in the studio working on a new album (since 2009, actually), and apparently it’s been quite a tortuous experience. Band members have independently verified that the process involved some rather disparate ideas about what the album should be and how best to get there.
Now that Angles is here, I can confidently say that this is classic Strokes – irresistibly catchy guitar hooks, soaring choruses and abrupt endings. If anything, it reminds me most strongly of Room on Fire, 2003’s superb sophomore effort. Although lacking in the absolute cannonball momentum of Is This It?, Room on Fire demonstrated the Strokes’ capacity to surprise the listener with deceptively simple trickery.
Angles shows that despite the long hiatus, the boys are up to their old tricks. Angles turns sharply, weaves through traffic and doesn’t use its blinker. Although nearly all of the tracks retain the crunch and snap of classic Strokes, the variety therein is remarkable. “Under Cover of Darkness,” the album’s leading single, experiments with unusual, slightly discordant intervals and neck-snapping turnarounds. “Two Kinds of Happiness” is at times a half-Cars, half-Blondie tribute to the 80s, and suddenly reverts to a more familiar garage shuffle. “You’re So Right” is a bizarro-world inversion of “River of Brakelights,” the standout number from Casablancas’ previous solo effort.
Although known primarily for noisy anthems like “Last Night” and “Reptillia,” The Strokes certainly aren’t afraid of a little musical empty space, as the quiet simplicity of “Call Me Back” demonstrates – a song whose ending is so weird that you can’t imagine anything else going there.
One of my favorite things about The Strokes’ music is that its very simplicity hints at a musical complexity hiding in between the lines. It’s a bit like a good beer. Sure, it’s got that upfront, unmistakably beer-y flavor, but as you swish it around in your mouth, you detect those weird flavors sommeliers and cicerones are always going on about – a note of cinnamon, a hint of rose, a delicate, nutty aftertaste. Maybe it’s overtones, maybe I’m hearing things, but The Strokes’ simple, barebones arrangements imply lush instrumentation through the lack thereof.
Like beer, it’s those little overtones that separate cheap swill from liquid gold, especially when they’re superficially so similar. Don’t be fooled by Angles’s apparent simplicity – there’s a lot there to taste.