The Strokes, ‘Angles’ (RCA)
You can blame the Strokes for a lot of stuff, including but certainly not limited to Jet, Levi’s new Ex-Girlfriend Jean, and the ongoing lame-ification of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side. What you can’t do, though, is accuse them of lacking a strong sense of self.
After five years of booming Bowery-Boy business, rock’s most radiant retro combo went on hiatus following 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, just in time for a worldwide economic crisis nobody needed to hear a Strokes song about. Now, as the gloom gradually lifts and Grammy winners Arcade Fire await inspiration from atop Mount Significance, Julian Casablancas and his bros slouch back to life with a fourth album that reminds you why they were so irresistible in the first place.
The only Strokes record written collaboratively as a band (Casablancas previously held sway), Angles isn’t a strict return to the bare-bones essentialism of Is This It. Neo-garage purists who balked at the slick keyboards and zany song structures on First Impressions are sure to be miffed by the echoing electro-pop beat in “Games” and the unctuous new-wave sheen of “Two Kinds of Happiness” (which nods to the Cars’ “You Might Think”). But like the group’s instant-classic early singles, swinging new tunes such as “Gratisfaction” (hey, it beats “Electricityscape”) and “Under Cover of Darkness” tap into a giddy insouciance that feels distinctly Strokes-y. “I’ve been all around this town,” Casablancas declares on the latter, “Everybody’s been singing the same song for ten years.” Reads like a complaint, right? Not as the frontman delivers the line. Cushioned by the sweet shimmy of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s interlocking guitars, Casablancas sounds reassured by the familiarity.
On First Impressions, the Strokes tried to deepen their downtown cool with a skeptical examination of their own celebrity; Casablancas was after something similar with his 2009 solo album Phrazes for the Young. (“I live on the frozen surface of a fireball,” he sang in that album’s “11th Dimension.”) When they go for depth here — which they do on a handful of slower, quieter cuts — the route isn’t bitterness, but a kind of pop-philosophical wonderment. “I look for you and you look for me,” Casablancas croons in “Call Me Back,” a spacey ballad layered with lush vocal harmonies. What he’s on about is anyone’s guess, yet there’s a disarming innocence to his tone that only increases the music’s charm. The same goes for the album’s gorgeous closer, “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” where Casablancas recounts watching “animals on TV singing about something that they once felt.”
That warmhearted vibe is all the more surprising considering how difficult the band members claim Angles was to make, thanks initially to inter-band conflicts, then to an aborted partnership with producer Joe Chiccarelli. (The band ultimately rerecorded some of the songs themselves at Hammond’s home studio.) Of course, that creative sleight of hand has been these guys’ M.O. since their very first single, “The Modern Age,” in which Casablancas offered a bit of advice — “Work hard and say it’s easy” — that too many of the group’s neo-garage successors seemed to willfully reverse.
On Angles, the Strokes’ trick isn’t fooling us into thinking these tunes fell to Stanton Street fully formed (though that occasionally happens, as with the goofy fake-reggae lark “Machu Picchu”). It’s that a group of reunited rock stars somehow come on like wide-eyed kids.