Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Album Review: The Strokes - "Angles"

The Strokes have always been a nostalgia act. Problem is, now they're a nostalgia act for themselves. When the Stroke debuted in early 2001, they sounded like they'd stepped directly out of a time machine bound from the late 60s, when proto-punk acts like Television, the Velvet Underground, and Richard Hell were (not) ruling the airwaves. Frontman Julian Casablancas' songs were always more tuneful than those of his musical forefathers, but they surely shared the same DNA: clipped guitars, tinny drums, those mumble-sung vocals.

But unlike those that came before, the Strokes got big. Really fucking big. I distinctly remember seeing the video for "Last Nite" so many times on MTV (!!!) that I can still remember how many times Fab Moretti hits his drum mic before he knocks it over (3). NME and the rest of the histrionic British music press helped the album rocket to number 2 in the U.K. and number 33 in the States. What was intended as an invocation of good times three decades past became a soundtrack for a new generation's adolescence. The band followed the album up with Room on Fire, a similar-sounding but nonetheless very good record, in 2003.

And then things got weird.

First Impressions of Earth was at best a slight evolution in the Strokes' sound, at worst a muddled, schizophrenic mess, but mostly just weird. Angles takes one more step into crazytown.

There were three parallel lines threatening to run the Strokes off the road: the band realized they didn't simply want to remake Is This It ad nauseam, bandmembers who aren't Julian Casblancas decided they wanted to play a role in the creative process, and Casablancas just ran out of shit to say. "Someday," "Hard to Explain," and the other great early Strokes material performed the magic trick of making the trifling seem timeless. That you could barely understand what Casablancas was saying only increased the ability of listeners to read in to the songs whatever mood, feeling, or remembrance they pleased.

That's a hard pose to keep up, as Earth and now Angles attests. What's the point of continuing to make music when all you're doing is trying to capture a mood you nailed ten years ago? The latter half of the Strokes' career is the sound of a band trying to figure out what the hell they're still doing here. First Impressions of Earth found them awkwardly tossing prog and post-punk into the mix, but the lock-step grooves of "You Only Live Once" showed that everybody loved the Strokes when they just tried to sound like the Strokes.

But despite the band's increasing lack of anything to say, the Strokes sure have spent a lot of time talking in the last few years. Solo projects have explored synthpop, sunny 70s pop, and folk rock, to varying degrees of success.

This might account for some of Angles' kitchen-sink awfulness. And yes, I said it: Angles is awful. It's not mediocre, it's not a transitional record; it's terrible. That's not to imply that it doesn't have its moments. Lead single "Under Cover of Darkness" has held up to merciless replays I've subjected it to since the band leaked it last month. And opener "Machu Picchu" starts things off strong, with reggae-via-new-wave guitar plinks, an anthemic chorus, and surprisingly tasteful djembe.

But if the opener is a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of divergent genres tastefully combined, the rest of the album is a Mayostard-quality taste disaster. "Life is Simple in the Moonlight" jump-cuts between bleary-eyed disco and mumbled Belle and Sebastian vocals, and the result is no better than you'd expect. "Call Me Back" has a sweet "Girl from Ipanema" guitar riff but no idea what to do with it. And bassist Nikolai Fraiture's sole songwriting contribution, the impossibly tuneless "You're So Right," is the worst song the Strokes have ever produced.

As on Earth, it often seems as if the band simply composed bits of a hundred different songs and then played musical Mad Libs to determine where to put each part. Worse, each of those bits comes from a different genre that the Strokes seem to have chosen at random after they'd taken their original sound as far as it would go. Some new wave here, a dash of post-punk there, and voila! The shittiest dish you ever ordered at Flat Top Grill.

Where could they have gone? You might argue that being a nostalgia act makes evolution nigh-impossible. But witness the White Stripes, whose sound continued to evolve over the course of their career, cannily incorporating old and different sounds as the years wore on. Or what about Deerhunter, who played up the nostalgic elements of their hazy pop music to dreamier and dreamier effect?

Maybe if the Strokes spent less time trying to prove their worldliness and more time on their songs, they'd be in the same camp. For now, though, we'll just remember the good times.