Where do you go after you've reached the top? It's a question that not many have to answer, seeing as not too many people ever do something that's truly worthy of an A+, and fewer still do it on their first try. It's a question that has haunted The Strokes ever since the release of Is This It? a whole ten years ago. As if you don't already know, the disc was/is about as close to perfect as things really get, ratcheting up both fame and expectations for a band who's senior-most members were the ripe old age of 23 at the time. Up until know, they've only released two subsequent albums: 2003's Room on Fire (largely viewed as being unambitious, and too similar to Is This It?) and 2006's First Impressions of Earth (largely viewed as too experimental and adventerous). The two records perfectly illustrate both the rock and the hard place that the band is stuck between, leaving little wonder as to why these boys would have waited a whole five years to give it another go around.
The first single from their new disc, Under Cover of Darkness, gave their rabid fan base every reason to think that Angles would be an album by The Strokes as we first knew them, happily burning through catchy rock numbers in some distant garage. That intentional lack of sonic quality that defined Is This It? is apparent from the moment that the tune's bouncy drums and guitars come crashing in. The song serves as another example of the insurmountable odds these guys are up against. Catchy and retro in the vein of their very best, Darkness might sound like a milestone were it played by another band. I, for one, was so busy looking for The Strokes to blow me away , I almost missed the fact that they were doing just that. In case I haven't over-stated it enough, it's one of the very best songs to be released in the young 2011.
As it turns out, however, Darkness only proved somewhat prophetic of what Angles actually sounds like. While less inclined towards the whole-sale experimentation of Earth, the band is still in the process of staking out new musical territory, something made especially clear by the reggae/80's infused opening minute of first track Machu Pichu. The crunchy guitars that follow thereafter almost make one forget about the new decade that these boys are pulling from, that is until track Three, Two Kinds of Happiness, goes down a similar road. Unlike Machu Pichu, which reveals itself to be a pretty familiar Strokes incarnation, each verse of Happiness sounds like a forgotten Clash track, with vocalist Julian Casablancas' chorus wailings going further into Bono territory than originally seemed possible. Besides both mimicking an era that The Strokes have largely ignored up to this point, the two tracks find commonality in the fact that they both boast of stellar guitar work, dual axe-men Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. using playful verses to play off of explosive choruses. Other fine examples include Taken for a Fool and Life is Simple in the Moonlight.
For four of the five songs that make up Angles' first half (You're So Right withstanding), it sounds like The Strokes might have another triumph on their hands; sadly, this does not last. Much has been made of the terrible recording session that produced the disc, with various band-members vying for more control, a myriad of differing ideas about what the album should sound like, and the near absence of Casablancas, who was working on his solo debut, Phrazes for the Young. The first half of the album does a good job of disguising this struggle, but Angles' home-stretch puts the studio strife on display. Take tracks seven through nine: Call Me Back is built of little more than a single electric guitar, and Casablancas' ever-stoic voice, a noble experiment that none the less shows how boring the band can be when they stray too far from their formula. Next up is Gratisfaction, a bouncy little number that fails (albeit narrowly) to channel the genuine devil-may-care bliss of their biggest hits. As if purposely trying to throw the listener for a loop, the following Metabolism stands as a dark and snarling tune that's far gloomier than I, for one, care to hear a Strokes song enacted. None of these tracks are bad, per say, but they speak to the immense thematic confusion that the band was dealing with when working on the record.
It wouldn't make sense for The Strokes to come out with a better album than Is This It?. Their sound isn't one that leaves a whole lot of wiggle room, and in emerging as a fully-realized music outfit on their first go-around, the band didn't really leave themselves many places to go. That being said, Angles is a far, far cry from a failure, and for the first half, it's a success, and a soaring one at that. The Strokes will always be subject to some level of scorn; they were too rapturously received upon initial impact, and have proven too musically limited to silence the haters. But The Strokes were never about reinventing the wheel. These guys have catchy, energetic, smile-inducing, classic rock-and-roll composition in their DNA, and when they stay true to that part of themselves, they're awfully hard to speak ill of. Stop waiting for The Strokes to, 'return to form,': Your inflated expectations alone are enough to ensure that it'll never happen. Just keep an open ear, and an open mind, and there's plenty to love about Angles.