For a group whose fundamental artistic register has shifted so little in their 10 years, the Strokes really have come a long way. In fact, upon first listen to Angles, the Strokes’ fourth long-player (and first since 2006), a complete neophyte could be forgiven for outright refusing to believe that this band initially rode in on a much hyped wave of groups (the White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines) saddled with the lofty duty of “saving rock and roll”; to the contrary, many of the influences evident on Angles more directly recall styles of music that purists have hoped rock would be saved from—electronic pop, cheesy ’80s synth schlock, etc. And though bountiful pitfalls await less responsible artists who engage in flirtations of this ilk, the Strokes are rarely so careless—they tread into unknown territory one step at a time, and they know when to pull back. As a result, Angles ends up being one of the group’s more compelling efforts, rather than the casualty of experimentation it could have been.
That these experiments don’t consume the Strokes’ natural talents is key: Singer Julian Casablancas still splits the difference between modest tunefulness and bratty indifference, and the interplay between guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi remains frequently thrilling. Instead, the familiar characteristics are enlivened—hooks emerge sharper, moments of abrasiveness are softened, guitar leads are framed more colorfully. Throughout, the rhythm section of bassist Nicolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti propel the band with a non-intrusive urgency, thumping out little accents that you don’t realize you’re tapping along to until the song’s almost over, which is almost always too soon.
One of the most consistent successes of Angles is the range of textures it manages to achieve utilizing strictly the group’s core instruments, deceptively broadening their uses in a way that ends up uniquely characterizing each piece. Opener “Machu Picchu” radiates the charisma of highly synthesized keytar pop, but a careful listen reveals that the Strokes create the effect by pitting a swiftly arpeggiated lead riff against a distant wall of heavily reverbed rhythm guitar, and burying Casablancas’s voice under the regular thin film of distortion, giving the song a personality that’s sort of half-human, half-robot. Little details like this are everywhere on Angles: Casablancas’s watery hum that announces “Two Kinds Of Happiness”; the panned, harp-like walkdown during the verses in “Games”; the guitar harmonies that comp the interludes of leadoff single “Under Cover Of Darkness,” a bouncy romp that recalls the band’s early touchstones like “Last Nite” and “Someday.”
In its low moments, Angles suffers from dull songwriting (“You’re So Right”) and a failure to meaningfully employ well-intentioned sonic ideas (“Call Me Back”). But mostly, these lapses are temporary. Angles is, like the group’s 2001 debut Is This It, a punchy shakedown of an album that sells you on its hooks and grows more complex as you dive in. Furthermore, 10 years and four albums into their career, the Strokes still manage to sound fresh, youthful and likable—less likely to save rock ’n’ roll from the scourges of its enemies, perhaps, but still very much deserving of a few funky moves.