Ten years on from Is This It and indie kids the world over are still sporting skinny ties, blazers, drainpipe jeans and beat-up Converse. Aside from influencing the stock of High Street fashion retailers, the garage rock of Is This It produced a wave of new bands, with even established acts like R.E.M. and U2 crediting The Strokes for the back-to-basics approach they both took on subsequent releases. Odd then, that the band that heralded the garage rock revival of the 2000s and epitomized CBGB’s rock should have lost their way as much as they did. Faced with the unenviable task of following up Is This It, Room On Fire was full of unremarkable tunes by a band in cruise control, while First Impressions Of Earth was too long, overblown and lacking in character. Subsequent solo projects by all of the band members made little or no impression on the indie rock fraternity. All of which The Strokes are keenly aware of.
There’s a confessional feel to Angles – on the album opener ‘Machu Picchu’ Casablancas sings “I’m just tryin’ to find a mountain I can climb” – and The Strokes 2011 aren’t without humor. The album’s flagship single, ‘Under the Cover of Darkness’, is a tongue-in-cheek number and smacks of something of an in-joke for the band; the classic sound is lifted right out of Is This It – Casablancas vocal melody of the line “I won’t just be a puppet on a string” is an exact copy of “Well I’ve been in town for just about fifteen minutes now” from 2001 single ‘Last Nite’. In a mirror of that lyric, he lambasts Strokes wannabes and in turn the band’s own sluggish development: “I’ve been out around this town / everybody’s been singing the same song for ten years”. As if to drive the point home the song even finishes in the same abrupt manner in which Is This It’s ‘Take it or Leave it’ and ‘Hard to Explain’. A pastiche of the Is This It it may be but it is also an opportunity that The Strokes take to confront their “definitive” sound in an effort to move on.
The main key to The Strokes’ development is how they’ve changed the way they operate as a band. Angles is a slight, compact record – 10 tracks clocking in at just under 35 minutes. For the most part the band produced the record themselves and it’s also the first album with songwriting contributions from all five members. And within this tight and busy frame they blend their strain of garage rock with synthpop. ‘You’re So Right’, ‘Taken for a Fool’ and ‘Gratisfaction’ are all recall some of Room on Fire’s more intriguing moments, while the 80s synthpop of ‘Games’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Casablancas’ 2009 solo debut, Phrazes for the Young – ‘Games’ being most radical departure from The Strokes’ roots will undoubtedly divide fans between those who love it and those who hate it; those who accept it as a Strokes song and those who don’t.
It could be this experimentation with synthesized rhythms that has challenged the band to write songs in a way unexpected by The Strokes and it is impressive how easily they translated much of the infectious hooks that make up their signature guitar songs to synths. ‘Two Kinds of Happiness’ and ‘Machu Picchu’ are both particularly successful in blending synthpop influenced verses with natural, garage rock choruses. These songs are, by proxy, the very heart and soul of Angles but by far the most enigmatic track here is album closer ‘Life is Simple in the Moonlight’, which points to where The Strokes might go next. Cut from the initial, fraught sessions with producer Joe Chiccarelli (U2, The White Stripes, The Shins), guitarist Nick Valensi trades the Thin Lizzy / Gun N’ Roses licks of ‘Gratisfaction’ and ‘Metabolism’ for a relaxed and fluid style of playing akin to Badfinger and Steely Dan.
As the album closes, Casablancas screams “Don’t try to stop us…get out of our way”. With a comeback of this magnitude and a confident step in the right direction after two missteps, who could stop The Strokes?