For The Strokes, Is This It is more than just an album title. “Is this it?” has also been a taunt used against the band throughout its entire career. That likely won’t change with Angles, the first Strokes album in five years. Stripped to the barest essentials—droning vocals, springy guitars, simple rhythms, and unbeatable hooks—Angles is far from being the sort of grandly ambitious statement that’s expected after several years of deliberation. Which means The Strokes, at least, still recognize their strengths.
Angles finds the band at times sounding very much like the Strokes of old, and other times, experimenting with its signature sound in familiar Strokes ways. For the former, look no further than “Under Cover Of Darkness,” a rollicking throwback to the leather-jacketed urban cool of Is This It by way of Steely Dan’s “Bodhisattva.” Or the snaky album opener “Machu Picchu,” where the intricately strummed riffs of guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi interlock and explode over a faux-reggae shuffle with the precision of military movements. Then there’s “Games,” a synth-pop sparkler that initially sounds like an outtake from Julian Casablancas’ 2009 solo effort Phrazes For The Young. But given Casablancas’ limited role in the making of Angles—he recorded vocal tracks remotely, as the other Strokes worked on the music in collaboration—songs like “Games” and “Taken For A Fool” might actually be a nod to Phoenix, the Strokes-inspired Frenchmen who became the new masters of marrying wiry guitars to airy keyboards during their heroes’ prolonged absence.
Once miscast as game-changing saviors of the underground, The Strokes have proven once again with Angles that they are actually one of the era’s top mainstream pop-rock acts, uniquely gifted at crafting catchy, radio-ready rock songs at a time when such a thing seems like a quaint remnant of a distant past. Just as 2001 needed a record of straightforward classicist pleasures like Is This It, 2011 could use more songs like “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight,” where Casablancas’ affected detachment can’t hide his inner romantic or his way with a heart-melting melody. It’s “just” another Strokes-sounding track among many on Angles, and that’s a very good thing to be.