The Strokes – Angles
Let’s just look at this whole “angles” thing for a second. The big idea circling this record is its totally collaborative nature: this is the most boldly Julian Casablancas has stressed that he is not the Stroke but one of five, to the point where the album has even been named after its group mentality and the guy to explain that to us was Albert Hammond, Jr., who until now sort of felt like Casablanca’s second-in-command simply because he had two solo albums and a jewfro under his belt. And I guess, also, because he was the second Stroke to get a writing credit with “Automatic Stop,” a track that slotted right into the band’s canon on Room on Fire, shuffling along unnoticed after “Reptillia” injected some venom into the aftermath of their debut. Angles, however, is said by Hammond to come “from five different people,” and while Hammond’s a good start, that’s a whole lot of writing credits.
But those of us who haven’t recognised the song-writing assets of these other Strokes understate how much Casablancas has, perhaps less pointedly, welcomed his friends in the past. Valensi, Fraiture and Moretti all had their own places on the latter half of First Impressions of Earth, and the record went downhill for it: critics told us “Ask Me Anything” was the Strokes’ worst song ever, bemoaned the repetitive, gloomy “Killing Lies” and sort of just downright ignored “Evening Sun.” Instead they talked about the songs that frontloaded the record, three singles in all, and made the point that the spirit waned as Casablancas did. So it’s kind of admirable that Angles brings these guys back, one record after that ‘disaster’, one by one, five approaches in all.
So Angles is very much an album made for a story. First Impressions of Earth dangled The Strokes off the edge in a way that Room on Fire refused to do and its reception was lukewarm in a way that you wouldn’t normally expect from fans and critics alike- no cheering for their ambitious moment, instead cries that this wasn’t where the Strokes should go (or, rather, they shouldn’t go too far from Is This It?) with their music. Angles, then, not only has to apologise for First Impressions, it also has to do it by being inherently characteristic of the Strokes. All five of them.
And in that way, it fails: this isn’t just ‘a return to basics’ because it is pointed so many different ways, and the Strokes only used to point towards one. Is This It? offered eleven near-identical tracks of garage-pop, a few chords thrown into each one for rhythm and an occasional smoky solo to break up the choruses. Angles is so-called because it carries five people’s worth of ideas. Compare Valensi’s “Machu Picchu,” which sounds like the Clash should’ve in the ‘80s, with Fraiture’s grungy, sinister “You’re So Right,” the exact song you’d expect the guy behind “Killing Lies” to create: it has none of what we’d recognise from the Strokes, none of the guitar interplay which Hammond and Valensi would normally cook up together, which is why it takes us aback as much as it does. And then look at “Metabolism,” a track more suited to the evil fucks behind “Heart In A Cage.” And then remember that “Games,” electro-pop as cute as anything from Casablanca’s smooth solo album, also features. Nope, this isn’t “Last Nite” another ten times.
That might get you down. Angles might well be the same old Strokes on the inside, but it’s the shine on the outside that makes them almost unrecognisable at times. This is the first time the Strokes feel really, truly impenetrable. They come from a distance on “Two Kinds of Happiness,” which feels obscure, produced in such a way that makes it kind of hard to grasp at the guys who made it: it fades in and out, builds to momentous, ever-building choruses, and plays that trick to its death. “Games,” too, feels like a Strokes number specifically deconstructed into the opposite, the guitar replaced for a synthesized sound that does the same job, but without that home comfort, without those chords, with efficient drum machines instead of the slick Moretti. That last guitar bit just reminds us who it is we’re listening to, and how at home they usually make us feel. Not that it’s bad for these guys to challenge us, but Angles is so diverse that “Games” is almost a mistake rectified by the uncompromisingly Strokes-y “Gratisfaction.”
For those of us sort of wondering if the Strokes would still be for us ten years on, it plays heavily on what we saw in them anyway. Did we see five guys in jackets who made those bouncy songs that were probably about sex (as if we were listening to lyrics)? Or did we see a little more in them than that, be it the music or the words or just the sadder tones they carried with the weight of growing up? In short, what the hell is Angles to us- is it the first/second record or the third?
To which the answer is all of the above and more. There’s obviously no room for “Games” on any of those records, because the Strokes never wrote the soundtrack to Q-Bert before now. But there’s obviously a place for “Under Cover of Darkness” to rest on Is This It?, a track that rolls about with the persona of a showy, silly rock-group just like the Strokes were at the turn of the millennium. It’s an achievement, eleven years on, that each member is on the same page, perhaps not in terms of what music they like (as the record as a whole is, yeah, it’s out of whack at its best), but in terms of how well they know each other. “Under Cover of Darkness” is seamless work from its collaborators and boundless fun for the fans who’ll love it for its hooks and embrace it for what Casablanca calls its “cheesy” storyline. There’s a lot of fun to be had with Angles, be it as a throwback or as the jump off the edge where First Impressions was too scared.
And, then, in final breath moment, there’s “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” a track penned by Casablancas in solidarity, which throws us straight off again. If anything, this track takes up the foundations First Impressions left, making a full product of the drunken, late-night “15 Minutes,” treading the same waters in which Casablancas battles sadness with celebration. Neither is definitive: the record finishes with those rollicking, playful cries of “don’t try and stop me!” but the build-up is so pensive, so First Impression Strokes. With “Life Is Simple,” Angles ends in a horribly frustrating manner, with none of the assurance of “Take it or Leave It” or “Red Light.” No, Angles, even in ending with its strongest song, dies the way it lived: in sheer ambiguity. Forget the ‘return to basics’: the promise the Strokes made true on was that whole “angles” thing. Vintage Strokes, newer Strokes, Strokes from the future, and each member of the Strokes. And so the question really remains, among all this confusion: which angle do you like best?
The Strokes – “Gratisfaction”