30 March, 2011

The Strokes - Angles

The freshness of the Strokes has now grown somewhat stale, and what should be a welcome return to form has instead produced a shambling holding pattern.  For a band that once sounded like it knew exactly what it was doing and could do no wrong, Julian Casablancas and company take a few too many wrong turns here to really herald them as returning rock saviors. 

At this point it’s impossible to think of the Strokes with a clear lens, at least for me.  I’m one of those people who thought of that period in the early 2000’s as a real revolution for rock music, when the Strokes, the White Stripes, and countless other bands with “The” at the beginning of their name promoted a return to garage ethos and actual concerns of teenagers beyond the mook nature of Limp Bizkit and Korn, the manufactured nature of Britney Spears and N’Sync, and the leftovers of grunge’s flayed corpse.  I’d never heard something that aspired to be so classicist, and the band helped introduce me to countless influences on them (The New York Dolls, Television, Lou Reed), but overall I just believed that Is This It was a strong and hook-filled record that was released when I was 18.  Older readers will know why that is so crucial to the enjoyment of music; specific places and times are attached to the first exposure to music, and for me this was simultaneously the best and second-worst time in my life. 

Their later music wasn’t necessarily as strong, though I unequivocally love the second half of Room On Fire more than any other period in their history, and part of that reason is because the band has always tried to make calculated music.  Their sound is recorded and produced in such a way that it is supposed to connote the sound of New York bands in the Seventies, and their look is supposed to connote the same reaction.  It’s hard to emphasize to today’s younger consumers just how revelatory the band was in terms of aesthetics, but these leather-clad youths helped wipe out the backwards baseball-cap wearing mooks that made freshman year so unbearable.  Yet the Strokes never really sold as much as they should have (at least according to their record company), and soon other bands that were based on similar aesthetic and sonic properties would overtake them in popularity (i.e. the Killers, who will likely be making an appearance later here).  

The freshness of those old days actually have taken their toll on the group, which is unfortunate since those records are filled with strong tracks and hooks.  However, anytime that the band constructs the music now, they are no longer doing it while thinking about the sound of their favorite records, but in reaction to the media and how they believe the media will react.  Nowhere is this more evident than on the Strokes’ latest release, Angles

Angles isn’t a bad album, really, but rather a flawed one in search of a larger cohesive whole among its disparate threads.  I think that the main problem with the record is how it was constructed.  It is well known among the blogosphere that Julian Casablancas literally phoned in his vocals to the band.  Okay, he actually recorded his vocals and e-mailed them to his bandmates in the studio so they could put them on top of the sound that they had been constructing together in a tiny room.  Is it rock-star posturing on his part?  Or is it indicative of not really knowing where to go next?  I think it’s both, and we the consumers have allowed it to happen.  We have allowed people to think that these records can be constructions rather than organic products, and if Angles is the result of such a collaboration, then we need to make sure that the band is locked in the studio from now on. 

We live in a hyperreal society where everybody that is a celebrity is placed under a microscope, and their every move becomes analyzed as being indicative of a personality or marketing force.  The Strokes was one of the first bands to really benefit from Internet publicity, and wouldn’t have been able to move so many units without the help of a public that could actually find those referenced bands through a new information-based medium.  Unfortunately, this opened them up to criticism if they fell outside of this range of influences, and the band was always under the review of a press that fawned over them (particular credit must go to England’s New Musical Express, which fell over itself trying to cram as much Strokes coverage as possible into the publication).  Inevitably, when they tried to stretch themselves out they can’t seem to reach the same heights that they once reached (and to be fair, First Impressions of Earth was just too much directionless rock.  C’mon, Julian literally wrote a song where he sang “I’ve got nothing to say.”), but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t stop trying.  Perhaps this is what happens when they are hyper-aware of how their music will be received; regardless, each song is constructed in a specific way to reference specific sounds. Even the album art is calculated to evoke an album cover from an Eighties new wave band, all bright neon colors and gaudy checkered art.

The first track “Machu Picchu” sounds like their take on a 70’s track, with a prechorus that evokes New York City around the era of the Son of Sam.  Maybe it’s the glow of the first new music in five years, but it’s exciting.  It seems like the Strokes have retaken their groove and injected it with some powerful electronics, as well as expanding the exterior sounds.  But the lyric about wearing a jacket made of meat seems too ambiguous and specific – Lady Gaga, natch – to be just a throwaway.  Here the lyrics are just a bit of a throwaway, and are disconnected from the rest of the song.  It’s a beginning that shows how the rest of the album will be, while the next song ,“Under Cover of Darkness,” goes for that classic Strokes sound.  It has a groove that sounds like a freshman walking across campus at night to a party where he doesn’t know what will happen.  This evokes hope, which is exactly how the Strokes sounded when I was going to college at the turn of the century.  The chorus is reliably huge and anthemic, which already gets me going enough.  The breakdown is odd stutter and stop, but there is enough there to qualify as a catchy Friday night singalong.  Julian’s vocals seem linked to this song more than the others.  “Will you wait for me too?” is the question he sings to the band, which seems linked to the fact that he didn’t record the song with the band but apart from them.  However, the pure celebration that the song seems to feature is infectious. 

“Two Kinds of Happiness” wears its Cars influence on its sleeve, coming across like an outtake from Heartbeat City.  I know I’m supposed to be an objective reviewer here, but this song makes me happy because there’s so much more to it.  Even with the lockstep beat mixing with the chiming early U2 guitars, it’s a Strokes song through and through.  The song features a groove that seems to be boosting the band to another level, which shows a maturity beyond their breakthrough years when life was only a smoke, drink, and screw away from normal.  However, this is the last point at which the album gets things truly right, and everything else falls apart after this. 

With “You’re So Right,” the album seems to darken, and the atmosphere is changed.  Lyrics become much muddier, and the singing seems to match nonchalance, like being caught coming home late from another’s house by your significant other but you don’t really care. This reminds me of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” minus the joy that is implied through the music.  Sounds like Radiohead plugged in with New York Dolls guitars.  The last lyric is “Maybe I’d hurt you if I could.”  Ooh, somebody’s hitting their thirties! 

“Taken for a Fool” is the midpoint of the album, where it seems like the Strokes stole the drumbeat from “Get Off of My Cloud.”  It has a bit of jaunt that was missing from the last song, but is nondescript otherwise.  My question was why is Julian Casablancas singing like Glenn Danzig?  He does an uncanny impersonation when he screams “Mama!” midway through the track.  The track seems like two separate songs, and there’s no real cohesion, but the guitars chime like a classic synth and sound excellent.  It’s a shame that the lyrics seem phoned in…oh, wait, they were.  This is where the disconnect between band and singer is most apparent.  After this, “Games” becomes an ode to the Eighties, but the bassline then comes in all quiet, which is refreshing.  Julian’s voice is very rigid and strong, and his talk of “living in an empty world” is met with spacy synth that masks the otherwise strong guitar work.  These are very odd dynamic switches, and this seems like something Soft Cell would have recorded.  This is a good contrast between Julian’s scratchy vocals and soft singing, but seems to be going through the motions by the end.  This is much more of a Julian Casablancas solo project, with no real excitement.  I can’t see myself visiting this track again anytime soon, and my excitement for the rest of the album was waning at this point…

…which made “Call Me Back” a shock. Based on a carefully plucked ringing guitar hook, it seems to be a total change of pace for what we think of the Strokes.  It begins very soft and sweet, and then it seems to take a Gershwin-esque turn at 1:18 into the track.  This is the shambling song that seems to indicate a new direction for the band, but I’m not sure it’s a huge success because it doesn’t have that sticky sweet hook that they once used, and though I appreciate the experimentation it doesn’t gel here.  Synths play in the background while the guitar chimes to great effect.  A very interesting track for the band, but I’m not quite sure what it means in the greater scheme of the album, and it really should have been released as a B-side.  It’s much closer to feeling like a shoddy Brian Wilson cut from the Smile/Smiley Smile sessions, with more atmosphere and directionless pop. 

My biggest complaint about “Gratisfaction” is that the title is annoying, and too pop-aware for the Strokes to be doing this.  I’m not saying people can’t be artists and grow and change, but this is just annoying.  But the actual song feels like a cross between Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and…80’s Billy Joel.  Why?  Okay, this also seems to find a way to incorporate Nick Lowe’s “So It Goes,” but there should be a different ending.  The dissonance of the ending on the song conflicts with what I thought was going to be the end, and while this is good it doesn’t gel with the rest of the song.  If anything, I’m glad that the band defied my expectations, but it just seems that the song is calculated to avoid such an ending while also taking away from the strength of the track.   

The last punches of “Metabolism” are vintage Strokes sounds.  It seems like “12:51,” but mixed with “Heart in a Cage” and has lyrics of “I want to be outrageous/But inside, I’m so plain.”  I have to ask this question:  were the Strokes ever really angry young men?  The track appears to be far too angry for such a sound to be coming from this flippant nature.  This sounds like an attempt to approximate their earlier sounds, but calls back to much of Casablancas’s solo work in Phrazes for the Young.  Finally, Angles concludes with “Life is Simple in the Moonlight,” where guitarist Nick Valensi earns his spot as this album’s MVP through his chiming lines; he’s our DeAndre Liggins of Kentucky basketball.  The song is good while it’s going on, but doesn’t really stick around in your head after it spins.

Overall, there are very few tracks that have that immediate glow that their earlier albums had, and even through multiple spins it’s difficult to get excited about Angles.  It possibly comes from the fact that I’m older and it no longer sounds fresh to me, but the songs and the process of construction seems to hurt the album.  Moreover, there seems to be TOO many references to other songs or bands here, and this frustrates me because when the Strokes have hit that groove, they are one of the top working groups alive.  But they constantly upend themselves on this record for whatever reason, and it has begun to wear on this listener.  


Anonymous said...

I'm amazed at how far off this article is. I'm just trying to figure out how an album doesn't sound "fresh" because it doesn't sound like previous albums. The band tried something new which, in my opinion, is welcome. Not to say any of the other albums were bad in any way. Actually, come to think of it, I can't recall any of their previous ventures sounding anything like the one that came before it. So maybe it wasn't such a departure. The phoning in part was the only other part I took issue with. Casablancas has said in interviews he's abit of a perfectionist and takes over in the studio. The band expressed an interest in taking a larger role in this latest album and he claimed the best way to do this was to stay away to keep his hands out of things.

Jake said...

i just have one word to sum up this album: ehh.

that's all i got from the multiple listens i gave this album. i listened to it several times last week. it was a really busy week and i had a shit-ton of things to do so i thought i may have unjustly judged the album too soon. upon my revisit i came to the inevitable conclusion: ehh.

angles does not hold my attention. at all. anywhere. which is a shame because i dig the strokes, but this album did nothing for me. it starts plain, ends plain, with all kinds of plain in the middle.

to me, this album was 80s muzak at its worse. the synths all blend together with very little thought put in to the (apparently literally but definitely figuratively) phoned-in lyrics. i can't even discern one song from the others to give any sort of track-by-track analysis.

i can't say this is a bad album. i certainly can't say it's a good album. hell, i can't even say it's an ok album. it's just there in the cannon with nothing in the 'comments' section.

i really feel defeated, but that is all this album gave me to talk about. if ric ocasek didn't get a shout-out in the liner notes, the strokes should be ashamed.