March 21, 2011

Douglas Martin is completely willing to be The Strokes’ Billy Preston.

I.

A decade ago– almost to the day– a pack of skinny, preternaturally good-looking white boys were unknowingly given the task of “saving rock ‘n roll”. Wearing messy hair, vintage duds, and nonchalance that approached radioactive levels, The Strokes were touted as the band– THE band– most likely to snatch the crown of mainstream guitar music from vomit-inducingly-bad post-grunge Neanderthals and embarrassingly angsty rap-rockers featuring “MC’s” so bad, they managed to make Vanilla Ice look like Illmatic-era Nas.

Their backstory is akin to Cinderella or the 1969 New York Mets. They played to crickets and apathetic bartenders for three years, then recorded a demo and got signed in fifteen seconds. They ignited a bloodthirsty bidding war on the strength of a three-song EP and five pairs of filthy-ass sneakers. They released one of the previous decade’s only truly perfect rock albums, headlined festivals all over the world, and probably found the cure for cancer one night when they were drunk but forgot in the morning.

Mighty, mighty expectations were placed on their narrow shoulders. The Strokes were supposed to lead fans of carefully disheveled skinny-tie garage-rock down the path of salvation. The Strokes were supposed to make wearing tight clothes cool again. The Strokes were supposed to change all of music for the better. Well, for better or worse, at least that second prediction kind of came true.

It takes the approximate time length of a sneeze to recognize Angles lead single “Under Cover of Darkness” as resolutely Strokes-like, something that could fit seamlessly on any of their albums. Clearly, however, the stress and strain of being the lead singer of the most popular New York band of this young century has gotten to Casablancas, as he threatens to join the Amish and holds the last syllable for almost two whole bars. It would be a fitting sartorial progression for him; the Pennsylvania Dutch have a flair for the vintage.

II.

While Room on Fire, the band’s second record, was originally tempered with cautious praise from fans and chided by detractors for being Is This It Again, the sands of time and the sport of critical reevaluation have both been very kind to the album. Of course, it’s easy to pull for an album featuring a round of perfectly capable Strokes songs, carried by outright classics (pardon the temporary lapse of professional distance) “12:51,” “Reptilia,” and “Under Control,” which showed the Well-Noted Strokes Style splintering in fascinating new directions like proto-punk, R&B balladry, and guitars that sound like cheap synths.

The aforementioned “Under Cover” finds the band using a trick they must have learned from Interpol in the Radio City Music Hall green room: rewriting that one song that most people liked, only WITH A BIGGER CHORUS. Unlike Interpol, this look usually works for The Strokes, because it doesn’t involve single-note strumming, robot voices with their circuits rewired to maximize dourness, or Daniel Kessler’s sideburns. The other standard-issue Strokes tunes are probably even better. The infectious Camaro-rock of “Gratisfaction” brings out a bouncy strut, skyward chorus and a particularly charismatic vocal turn from Casablancas.

Angles closer “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” finds the quintet once again appropriating The Cars, this time using the sound to vividly evoke the song’s title. You can almost picture the music video: Casablancas walking down a poorly lit residential sidewalk, clad in leather jacket and high-top sneakers (and sunglasses, of course– yes, even at night), with the camera cutting to an anonymous pretty female roaming the same neighborhood. He sees her. She sees him. He walks up toward her with arms outstretched. She walks right past her to hop in the convertible of some jock. End scene.

III.

First Impressions of Earth wasn’t a bad album. Wait, where are you going? Hear me out first! First Impressions of Earth wasn’t a bad album. The breezy pop-rock of “You Only Live Once” and “Red Light” (the record’s beginning and end, respectively), the Mellotron-led “Ask Me Anything,” and the glittery, Pogues-like “15 Minutes” are tunes ranging from above-average to really great. Sure, “Razorblade” shamelessly nicks the chorus of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” but what if Casablancas is just a huge fan of the movie Can’t Hardly Wait? I mean, it is the single greatest teen movie of the 90’s, after all.

No, the reason why First Impressions was The Strokes’ first true misstep was because they were awkwardly exploring new territory, seemingly trying to sound like an entirely different band. Most of the album’s tracks bear a darker tint and muscular heft that didn’t suit the band well at all, thudding and plodding when The Strokes’ strengths lie in sauntering and shrugging. On Angles, the only songs that suffer this fate are “Metabolism” and “You’re So Right,” but while they’re pitch-black and a little plodding, they were written with the Strokes Sound in mind.

Angles is marked all over with The Strokes expanding their stylistic boundaries. The chug and churn of 80’s rock is prominent on the record, trying out The Cars again for good measure (“Two Kinds of Happiness”), dance-rock with bongos(!) (“Machu Picchu”), Michael Jackson-like shimmy (“Taken for a Fool”), and even a little synth-pop (“Games”). The drumless “Call Me Back” forges new territory for the band, eliciting images of an uncomfortable midnight train ride. Throughout the album, you’re constantly reminded of the band’s willingness to experiment, a virtue they heretofore either forced the issue upon or ignored completely.

EPILOGUE.

Though its been well-documented that recording this album wasn‘t exactly an enjoyable affair, Angles feels like the album that First Impressions of Earth should have been: not quite the life-affirming classic fans have been waiting five (well, let’s face it– eight) years for, but a necessary sidestep of the tried-and-true Strokes aesthetic for something more diverse. Something that shows the band’s true range as musicians. The Strokes may not have met the expectations of everyone wanting them to alter the course of guitar music at large, but they have made the music world just a little better by simply existing. Angles makes for a fairly great addition to their legacy, and reignites our hope that these five men may potentially have another classic in them.

Download:
MP3: The Strokes-“Under Cover of Darkness”

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