A Review of the Strokes “Angles”
A Review of The Strokes Angles
Every now and again, I feel compelled to write a review of a record. This is one of those times, and I am happy to report that it is a review of the 4th studio album from the Strokes, titled Angles. I’ve had the opportunity to read at least one review of this record, and since I assume that that review was fairly typical, I will assume that I have something to add.
By the way of establishing my Strokes cred, I was first introduced to this band way back at the beginning of the decade by my good friend and comrade, Dan Patterson, via the college radio station in Spearfish SD, KBHU. He had the record, I listened to it, and thought it was probably the most amazing record that came out that year (the music scene between perhaps 2001 and 2004 was a real good stretch, but unfortunately there were a lot of clones and knock offs that didn’t do it as well as the real article.) Bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes were the genuine thing, others fell short and attempted to copy. Is this It? returned to rotation in my car stereo last fall. The record, while cutting edge and innovative back then, for some reason now sounds dated, though it still is good fun rock and roll. Fast forward to 2011. At the beginning of the year, I happen to discover that the Strokes are putting the final touches on their 4th album. In the same thought I thought both “How did I not know about this?” and “Because I have been listening to the Bad Brains and Rancid for my rock and roll fix for some time now.” simultaneously.
How did I not know about it? Because sometime between the Strokes’ first and second studio releases here in the States, the title of the “Hardest Rocking Rock and Roll Band in American Music” was claimed by the White Stripes, and has changed hands a few times since then. But I have since lost track of it, because whoever has it (last I checked, it was the Killers, but I am sure if they still have it, it is only a de facto crown; “Human” was less than impressive…) they aren’t putting records or songs on American Radio anymore: that is a waste-land full of songs about going to the club and getting loaded (or, perhaps, if you will, getting slizzered) and a bunch of whiny over-testosteronated assholes who must get out the most intense feelings they have ever felt (clearly) on my radio. I am actually bored more than half the time with what passes for popular music and almost NEVER hear music that sounds anything like Rock and Roll. So, I turn back to old CD’s and old friends who put out new CD’s, thankful for a bit of relief from the constant dumbing down I experience because nobody is making good music anymore for radio consumption.
Truthfully, I lost track of the Strokes. I don’t know if it was by design or what. So obviously the news about their new record was very exciting to me. I think the same day I found out that they were coming out with a new record, that was the day NBC announced they would be playing SNL, on SNL. I researched why the Strokes would be playing SNL, and lo and behold, a new record was coming out, and they had already released a single, “Under the Cover of Darkness.” They played SNL the next week. They played that one song, and I thought, “Ok. That was alright.” and then they played another one, which I don’t remember. And I was rather far from impressed.
See, you gotta know, as I am sure many of the people who have listened to Angles also do, that I was comparing what I heard to what I consider their masterpiece. I loved the first record, I liked the second one, and I felt the third one was boring. So I was comparing what I heard to Is this It?, and clearly it didn’t stack up, not even close. But then again: as I am sure people who know music and like music will say, “That’s not really a fair comparison. There’s a decade and two other records separating the two albums.” I understand. And yet, it is the comparison I made. So I figured I would wait for some time to see how the record sounded.A week ago, (three days after the record was released) I acquired a copy of the record. I first listened to it online, via YouTube, and read someone’s song by song review of it. Generally, they spent their time talking about the aesthetic of each song, and how they had decided what each song would sound like before they heard it, and then compared what they thought of the song to what they expected. This person was mostly wrong, but what struck me was how unscientific it was to guess what the song would sound like based on its title. It told me nothing, but I generally agreed with the revision, aesthetic-wise anyway.
So, let me take a crack at the review. I’m not going to do it “book report style”. Instead, I have something else planned.
When I first heard Angles, I was pretty unimpressed. There really wasn’t any song that stuck out for me, except for the song that that crazy reviewer said sounded like “Thin Lizzy”. The song is called “Gratisfaction” This was the only song that I initially thought was interesting on the entire record. Granted, it didn’t sound like the Is this it? Strokes I was hoping that this record would be a return to. But this is fine. I was fine with that. I sort of had to be, because little else on the record sounded like the Strokes in the glory days of early 21st century Rock and Roll either. Most of the stuff was pretty far out, certainly unexpected for the Strokes, who made their reputation on a no-frills lo-prod rock band.I can also say that my early impressions of the record were prejudiced by the story that was published about the production of the record. How the band had such trouble getting things together. How the lead singer phoned in the lyrics, almost literally, recording on the west coast, while the band was in the studio on the east coast. How the singer later, when pressed, admitted that there were things he would have done differently, etc. As I listened to the record, I couldn’t initially get past that. I mentioned my lack of being impressed to my friend Dan, and told him that based on what I had heard of the record, I could more or less take it or leave it.And Dan’s advice was to listen to it with earphones.
So I did. I mean, let me preface this by saying that I WANTED to like the record: I liked the band, and I wanted to have a new Strokes record to cruise in my car with, just like Dan and I did back in the day when we took Is this It? with us from Western South Dakota, through rural Southern Oregon, and then down the entire California Coastline to LA in 2002. And as another word of preface, I was disappointed that this was not that record. I still feel that this is not that record, but the disappointment disappeared when I listened to it with headphones.
And… then I understood it, on my fourth or so listen through, with earphones. The record suddenly became first listenable, and then it appeared to me to be a sort of theme record. As I listened to it a few more times back to back (I tend to do that with two types of records: either records I really like, or records I really want to like.) the theme became apparent here. The production choices slowly made sense. This lo-fi sound with excellent production hearkened back to the late 70’s and early 80’s, before American radio was saturated with cheap Duran Duran and Madonna knock-offs. It sounded more like Cheap Trick, or 10cc, or something like what Rick Ocasek produced, or some Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at their prime, (right as they were bringing in a synthesizer- I’m thinking “You Got Lucky”). In fact, it DID sound like Thin Lizzy, if Thin Lizzy was a bit more like a garage band (I never liked that band at all, but I much prefer the sound of that band to the crap that is on the radio today: I must be getting old. I am starting to sound like my mother.) And it made a lot of sense. Once I made this connection, the record immediately shot up in my esteem.
This is, let me say, not some other record review speaking here: I have only read maybe one other review, the one mentioned above, and the “making of” article which prejudiced my opinions. This is my honest appraisal: This record is the Strokes, perhaps in name and talent only, but definitely not in sound. It may as well be a different band made up of the same people. The simple fact is: there is no going back to Is This It? But you know- just because the band has failed, yet again, to capture the magic which made that record so special, this doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t try a different direction.
I don’t think I can stress too much what a radical departure this record is from the original sound of lo-fi bare bones rock that the Strokes exemplified. The buzziness of the guitars and the vocals are still there. The synthodrum sound is still there from their third record. The instrumentation is still just as tight as it ever was, minus a bit of the disco-ness that they adopted for First Impressions of Earth (adopted largely, I think because they were copying the sound of “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand, which preceded that record). But there was a lot of syntho instrumentization on Angles, once more reminiscent of the Cars. The two songs which posses this quality, I think are “Taken for a Fool” and “Two Kinds of Happiness” (the former is arguably the most classic “Strokes” song on the record, and the latter sounds most like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, if they made a song produced by Ocasek.) The early 80’s pop-rock references are all over this record. For example, the one thing I took from that one review I read which I will repeat here is that the first song, “Macchu Pichu” has a syntho-island feeling reminiscent of “Nothing Gonna Break My Stride” during the verses.
While I’m on the topic, then, of synthesizers. Let’s talk about the songs “Games” and what I have come to believe is by far the most impressive song on the entire record, “Life is Simple in the Moonlight”. Both of these songs have notes of the Human League and Joy Division. “Games” sounds like something you may hear in some bar in some movie about homeless kids in New York, circa 1981. I imagine that if it had been released back then “Living in an Empty World” would describe life in the US during pretty much all of Regan’s first term. “ Life is Simple” most especially sounds like a cross between Joy Division and Belle and Sebastian. In my humble estimation, that is a brilliant marriage for the Strokes to accomplish. The song “Call Me Back” is a very quiet song, and made me think a bit of some of the more deranged-yet-coherent parts of the White Album (! I don’t know why… Perhaps someone will come along and suggest a different comparison…) “You’re so Right” rounds out, for me, the syntho trio of the record, and is faster tempo-ed, though not more joyous than the other two, and might have, in a different life, been suitable for a car chase scene in some post-apocalyptic dystopia movie.
The rest of the record is a roller coaster between these two poles. You got upbeat solid rock and roll on one side, albeit from a completely different period of time, right at the end of what we call “Classic Rock” and right before Hair Metal and power ballads took over on the rock channel and everyone became interested in the pop of the second British Invasion that built MTV in its early years. And then you got darker, brooding music made by synthesizers that remind you of the Joy Division and earlier Smiths and the Cure. And all throughout the record, you also hear the unmistakable sound of the Strokes, which is genius, in my opinion. This band, very much a product of the 21st century, who have been pigeonholed (I think, to some degree, unfairly) in the “garage rock revival” genre, has actually been able to make a genre-bending and mixing record that they are constantly present in, most notably in songs like “Under the Cover of Darkness” and “Two Kinds of Love”.
The result is both retro (though in no way “garage rock”) and what I imagined that music in the future might sound like when I was actually listening to bands like The Cars and Thin Lizzy on the actual radio.Because of that, this record joins other records out recently (for example, several songs off of The Black Eyed Peas’ “The E.N.D.” Shakira’s “She Wolf” and something that Brittany Spears has done recently, whose title I can’t quite recall) that sound “futuristic” to me (and by “futuristic”, I mean records that sound like music in 2011 is supposed to sound like to a kid growing up in the early 80’s) It is what I imagine music would have evolved into if Cindi Lauper, Whitney Houston and Rick Astley hadn’t been allowed to take over the air waves. Forget about Nirvana, forget about Is this It? This is what rock music would sound like if MTV had never happened.
I am thoroughly impressed with this record. Sure it will never live up to Is this It? (the answer to that question, is increasingly obviously “Yes”). Sure on occasion the lead singer sings just past his natural range. And sure the music lifts a LOT of pop rock references from the years before I could do multiplication. These are actually minor problems. If you are looking for a Is This it? Part 2 or 4 in Angles, you may be disappointed. But just do what my friend Dan suggested. Listen to it with earphones, and you will realize that you are in a time machine, set to a time when you could look like Christopher Cross or Rick Ocasek and still be popular in mainstream music. It took me a bit of time to warm up to this record, but my feeling about Angles having heard it several times (it only runs a bit over a half an hour, spread out over 10 tracks) is that it is brilliant, a real stand out record, the second best Strokes Record, by a long shot (and better, in some ways than Is this It?) and by far the best record to be released this year, or in the last few years, for that matter.
P.S. Its 2017 now… and I can put the record up here. Enjoy: