Tag Archives: The Strokes

The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ – Review

16 Apr

It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1992 Johnny Cash was washed up. Past it. Ignored by the Nashville community, dismissed by critics, and forgotten by the wider public; he was feuding with his record label and recovering from numerous surgeries and addictions. Then he met Rick Rubin, backstage at one of his concerts. The rest, as they say, is history. Rubin recorded Cash with two mics, a guitar and an emphasis on his truth. Their ‘American Recordings’ set a precedent. Over the next couple of decades, Rubin would take established but beleaguered superstars and whittle down their sound to the raw essentials whilst amplifying everything that made them superstars In the first place. In the time since, he has performed this same trick on everyone from Neil Diamond to Metallica. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to The Strokes.

The successful results are not that surprising. ‘The New Abnormal’ is easily the band’s most focused and cohesive record since ‘First Impressions of Earth’, their messy but generally majestic third album. Rubin’s bright mix emphasises the core essentials; elastic bass lines, interlocking guitar hooks and colour crayoned melodies, while smoothing out the band’s zanier tendencies. On a technical level, It has an identity – something The Strokes have been haphazardly scrambling around for since since the muted reception to 2003’s (now clearly acknowledged) masterpiece ‘Room on Fire’.

The two albums that the band put out in the last decade had the whiff of low risk, low reward. ‘Angles’, a bouncy update of the band’s signature pop-rock sound, was the better of the two. It contained a handful of genuinely great throwbacks alongside some more adventurous curios. As good as it was, it sounded like the fragmented product of five individuals playing different songs on different continents. And there was some truth to that. Even more so, ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded laboured and lacking in focus. It half heartedly cast an eye down several new roads but seemed too lazy to set down them with any enthusiasm or urgency. They didn’t particularly promote either album, save for a smattering of festivals here and there, along with some bad-tempered press interviews that focused more on drug habits, fall outs and family dramas. It gave the impression of a band past the point of caring.

‘The New Abnormal’ then is initially notable for how much the band seem to care. They’ve spent the best part of three months promoting and performing. Press interviews are still a little awkward (in the LA Times this week, Casablancas generously labelled this his fourth favourite project that he’s been involved in) but at least they’re giving them a go. On the album itself are strong signs that they are once more a group of brothers on the same page. The band recorded together in the same studio. The songs are credited to all band members, rather than the individual writer. The gaps between those songs are filled with studio banter, laughs and musical asides. In an affected kind of way, it goes some distance to recapturing the spontaneous, casual cool of a band so desirable that even Alex Turner, one of the coolest men alive, ‘just wanted to be one of the strokes…’

Of course, they are never going to be that band again. No-one is. The disheveled hair has flecks of grey. The vintage t-shirts no longer fit. The disintegrating converse have finally kicked it. ‘Is This It’ was a once in a lifetime masterpiece. To spend any longer asking – was that it? – would do everyone a disservice.

And so I’ll try to focus on the things they do now that they couldn’t have done then. Julian has finally found his range on the wonky, weird synth numbers like ‘At the Door’ and he no longer sounds out of his depth when using his falsetto. Reviewing ‘Comedown Machine’ I complained that his grizzled voice was ill-suited to the taut, clean synth pop he seemed so taken with. On ‘Selfless’ and ‘Endless Summer’ he proves me wrong. He’s a more curious vocalist, taking melodies in unexpected directions. On ‘The Adults are Talking’ he is surprisingly subtle, giving off a sultry r&b vibe as the band click and pop around him. On ‘Endless Summer’ he skews from angelic choirboy on the verses to demonic garage rocker on the chorus. It’s easily his most adventurous turn as a Stroke, and unlike in the past where his experiments sounded stilted or strange, he is largely successful. In the background his band mates are more restrained, doing what they do, as well as they’ve always done it, but more inwardly.

It doesn’t always work though. Occasionally the songs crunch awkwardly, like car gears getting jammed on a long drive. Tracks meander aimlessly past four, five, six minutes as if the band haven’t quite figured out how to end them. Important structural decisions like this feel botched; Fab is audibly, and half heartedly, invited to join in on ‘Ode to the Mets’. Elsewhere verses splutter in to choruses and choruses jut grind to a halt. Perhaps these faults feel more jarring because of The Strokes being who they are – ‘Is This It’ being one of the tightest, most meticulously constructed albums we have. When ‘Hard to Explain’ stopped on a dime after the first chorus, it felt like essential respite rather than there being a lack of a better transition. When Julian shouted ‘stop’ in New York City Cops, it was an imperative, not a request.

It goes without saying that there is something quite fitting about The Strokes releasing an album called ‘The New Abnormal’ at the time of Covid-19. They have form of course; this quintessential NYC band released ‘Is this It’ the week that the towers fell. The Strokes symbolised the end of one era, as well as the start of something new. They drew so much from the past, from an old Manhattan that was being both destroyed and gentrified literally all around them, and set the tone for a new decade of rebels and artists that followed in their wake. This dissonance between yesterday and tomorrow is encapsulated in their sound – something Julian Casablancas once observed when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted their songs to have the quality of cassette tapes buried decades before being discovered and played in the future. ‘The New Abnormal’ once again summons that quality. There’s a lot here to get nostalgic about; the metallic guitar tones – reminiscent of Thin Lizzy but EQ’d to the point of sounding like Tron synths. The sluggish downstrokes meshing with Julian’s anguished drawl on the ironically titled ‘Its Not the Same Anymore’. Even the terrible, faux-philosophical lyrics (‘you’d make a better window than the door’). But there is the sense of something risked as well. ‘The New Abnormal’ is adventurous and creative. It’s a reassuring dose of familiarity – with just enough that is new – when so much else is unknown.



The Strokes ‘Comedown Machine’ – Review

27 Mar

Lets look at a potential Strokes Greatest Hits, one based purely on singles released in chronological order:

1. The Modern Age
2. Hard to Explain
3. New York City Cops
4. Last Night
5. Someday
6. 12:51
7. Reptilia
8. The End Has No End
9. Juicebox
10. Heart in a Cage
11. You Only Live Once
12. Undercover of Darkness
13. Taken For a Fool
14. Machu Picchu
15. All This Time

Considering that most critics only ever discuss their debut album, that’s a remarkably consistent and underrated ten year run. As patchy as a couple of their albums have undoubtedly been, top to bottom, their singles have never dipped in quality. Until ‘All This Time’. After some perky, nostalgic and practicly flourescent singles from 2011’s ‘Angles’ I was hoping for more of the same this time around. But ‘All This Time’ is the first Strokes single not to deliver on any count. It feels heavy; heavy with the weight of the chugging riff, heavy with the weight of expectation, heavy with burden of sounding like the strokes. But it doesn’t sound right. The vocal distortion is off, the guitars aren’t metallic enough, the chorus is too nagging, the solo is in the wrong place. If you’re trying to sound like The Strokes then these are the details that matter.

In fact, they spend the rest of the album (rightly or wrongly) trying to sound as little like The Strokes as possible, and it’s an identity crisis that makes my heart bleed. Here are the band responsible for the finest Rock n Roll of the decade, sounding somewhat bewildered; scratching their heads in a world that no longer answers to their beck and call. I’m not against bands exploring new avenues, but The Strokes are only exploring these avenues because they’re lost. On ‘Comedown Machine’ they simply don’t play to their many strengths, and that is the real shame.

Truth be told they get away with it, in as much as they’ve made a decent album. But ‘decent’ just won’t do when you’ve made the album of the decade – decent means they haven’t tried hard enough. I’d rather this be a noble disaster than ‘decent’. Still, it sounds good. It’s a nice, polished record. It proves yet again that Julian, Fab, Albert, Nikolai and Nick are the finest players in music and they clearly know each other inside out. It’s also their most consistent album since ‘Room on Fire’; unlike the more hit and miss ‘Angles’ and ‘First Impressions of Earth’, there are no stinkers here. But while they never dip as low as ‘Metabolism’ or ’15 Minutes’ they don’t come anywhere near to reaching the dizzy peaks found on previous album. The second half in particular flows very nicely but nothing really makes me want to reach for my converse and leather jacket and form a band.

Julian’s vocals just sound wrong. He’s got a deep, grimy, primal growl of a voice, which suits the music The Strokes have typically made. What it doesn’t suit is the taut, clean synth-pop that makes up a large proportion of the album. He sings in a high register on at least half these tracks, and it never works as well as you imagine he thinks it does. On the crystal clear ‘Changes’ it just sounds like a terrible fit – what that song really needs is the crystal clear tone of Brandon Flowers. Which is not to put Julian down – we all know he’s got the best voice in rock when he uses it correctly. However he stretches it in all the wrong directions here.

Still, the positives… ‘Tap Out’ is a tight but breezy pop-rock exercise that takes off where ‘Angles’ opener ‘Machu Picchu’ left off. It’s probably the best song on here because it doesn’t feel like a step out of their comfort zone and yet they are actually breaking some new ground. I haven’t heard them sounding this slick and well rehearsed before. For the same reasons ‘Happy Endings’ is another winnner, the closest they come to nailing the ‘classic Strokes sound’ whilst adding some new elements like vocoder background vocals. ‘Changes’ is another great song despite the vocal issues I mentioned earlier, and the only one that sounds like a Julian Casablancas solo number, an accusation thrown at the entire album by some patronising, tone-deaf critics. ‘Call It Karma, Call It Fate’ is a bizarrely beautiful way to end the album – it sounds like something off Little Joy’s debut album, but I genuinely have no idea what genre it belongs to – I just know it sounds like a strange relic from the gramophone age. ‘Close the door…not all the way’ he sings in the old-fashioned Casablancas way – and for a second I think he’s talking about the band. There are hints, even here, of what’s come before, but hints are all they are.

Ultimately it’s the songs that aim to sound like classic Strokes songs that leave me upset and confused. You see, I can understand why they can’t quite pull of sounding like Simple Minds on ‘One Way Trigger’ or Pet Shop Boys on ’80’s Comedown Machine’ but what hurts is that they don’t pull of sounding like The Strokes on ’50/50′ or ‘All This Time’.  Have they really lost the ability to write generation defining anthems like this and this? And if the band of my generation have lost that ability…what does it say about me? It feels like a pretty damning nail in the coffin of my youth. It feels like a pretty terrifying symbol. The band who, for me, defined being young, defiant and alternative sound dated, anxious and out of touch. In the booklet to ‘Comedown Machine’, the same five faces that graced the booklet of ‘Is This It’ (and many teenage bedroom walls), are cast in the shadows, blood-red background, nothing left to say. What a comedown.



16 Aug

Heavily hyped new band from America. Their debut e.p  has been released by Rough Trade ten years to the day they released ‘Is This It’. Make of that what you will.

The Strokes ‘Angles’ – Review

30 Mar

It’s been nearly five and a half years since The Strokes released their last album. For a band that never split up that’s a pretty long time, about as long as it took The Stone Roses to release ‘The Second Coming’, and we all know what happened there. To put that gap into perspective, when The Strokes released ‘Frist Impressions of Earth’ Arctic Monkeys hadn’t even put out an album – next month they will release their fourth. That band opened their debut with the line ‘anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment’, and the anticipation / disappointment ratio is something that has been playing on The Strokes minds as well. Tellingly ‘Angles’ opens with the line ‘I’m putting your patience to the test’ – you have no idea Julian, you have no idea.

It’s as if, to dilute the anticipation, The Strokes have been sabotaging the release of ‘Angles’, and if you’ve read any interviews with the band recently you probably have zero faith in this being a decent album. The group have always criticized their own records, but never this early; when they were promoting ‘Room on Fire’ in 2003 they expressed their disappointment with the way ‘Is This It’ sounded, then a couple of years later they conceded that ‘Room on Fire’ was rushed and inconsistent, and more recently the band have also been slagging off ‘First Impressions of Earth’. But this time around they have gotten ahead of themselves by criticising ‘Angles’ before it was even released! Nick Valensi told Pitchfork that ‘I feel like we have a better album in us, and it’s going to come out soon.’ Julian Casablancas said ‘there’s a bunch of stuff on the record I wouldn’t have done’. Hmmmm, doesn’t exactly bode well does it?

So what’s the diagnosis? The bad news is that ‘Angles’ is no ‘Is This It’ or ‘Room on Fire’, it doesn’t even want to be. But hold on – the good news is that this is an enjoyable and diverse collection of songs that expands the group’s sound whilst retaining most of what makes The Strokes unique. I know a lot of people were hoping for a bit more than ‘enjoyable’, I think deep down we were all  hoping they would save rock music once again, but the fact is that rock isn’t going to be saved by a bunch of 30+ year old dads – the superhero costumes just don’t fit them anymore.

The band acknowledged this fact when they told NME that they couldn’t provide exactly what fans wanted from this album – they’ve changed too much. This is evident in the album’s eclectic range of styles, from the reggae tinged swagger of ‘Macau Picchu’, to the gothic punk of ‘Metabolism’, and the synth pop of ‘Games’; Sometimes The Strokes sound like a different band. For the first half of the album this really works to their advantage, they sound completely refreshed and re-energized in comparison to the band that made the overproduced and overlong (but somehow still impressive) ‘First Impressions of Earth’.

Occasionally however the experimenting doesn’t pay dividends. I’m still undecided on the Nikolai’ penned track, ‘You’re so Right’, which is the darkest thing the band have ever done, but I think the idea was probably stronger than the execution. This is also true of ‘Games’, a song that strives for radio pop greatness but fails due to watery production, a disjointed structure and lack of anything interesting to say. There’s no getting around the fact that ‘Angles’ was written and recorded by five different people in separate rooms, and that’s exactly how the weaker moments sound. ‘Call Me Back (a real grower) sounds like two songs wielded together and ‘Metabolism’ feels underdeveloped. However when they have clearly read each others notes, the results can be explosive for exactly the same reasons (see the Springstein-esque ‘Undercover of Darkness’), but if the album has a big flaw, then the lack of cohesion is it.

Although the band’s newly-found adventurous spirit makes this album what it is, undeniably the band are still at their best when they stick to what they know. On ‘Taken For a Fool’ and ‘Undercover of Darkness’ The Strokes haven’t sounded this damn Strokesey since ‘Room On Fire’, you’ve just got to love the familiarity of Julian’s vocals, the felt tip guitar twin attack, the understated rhythm section, and the simply joyous melodies . ‘Gratisfaction’ and ‘Two Kinds of Happiness’ also hark back to the band of old, but these songs add new and interesting elements into the mix, including synths and tribal drums. A part of me wishes the whole album was this clear minded and straightforward, but then I realize that if The Strokes keep sticking to the same formula with every album they would be little more than the indie Oasis, and obviously that isn’t desirable.

I guess, like me, You’ve probably been counting down the hours, days, weeks, months and years for this album. When The Strokes released ‘First Impressions of Earth’ I was still at school, and they were still arguably the most important band on the planet. Now they are primarily regarded as a group whose big achievements are locked in the past, and whose future is still far from certain. Rather than being an album that will change the course of indie as ‘Is This It’ did, ‘Angles’ is simply a great bit of fun that finds a satisfying balance between the old and the new – mainly it serves to remind me why this band meant so much in the first place. I suppose listening to ‘Angles’ is like meeting up with your first girlfriend for the first time in years and realizing that you’ve both moved on. You have an enjoyable chat, you still get along and you’re reminded why you liked her to begin with, and maybe under everything there is kind of a spark there – but you’ve both probably changed too much for anything serious to happen between you again.


Reading and Leeds Lineup announced (and a rant)

22 Mar

So it’s that time of year when the Reading and Leeds lineup gets announced. As I get  older and increasingly cynical it becomes more and more difficult to judge just how good a new Reading and Leeds lineup actually is. I mean, back when I first went in 2006 I had barely seen any bands live and so the whole thing was a wonderful, eye-opening experience – cut to 2011 and the lineup holds no surprises, I’ve seen most of the bands before and it just seems a bit stale.

I mean are teenagers really digging My Chemical Romance (and do teenagers still say digging ((and did teenagers ever say digging)) ) ? I seriously doubt it. Speaking of the 2006 lineup, I seem to remember MCR playing and getting bottled off the stage, but obviously the organizers have forgotten about that. And Muse also played in 2006 – can’t remember how good they were, I just remember the rain. That year Arctic Monkeys exploded on the main stage, confirming themselves as the act of a generation, whilst Klaxons set the tent on fire with a sound that was genuinely new and exciting. If this lineup says anything to me it’s that there is no Arctic Monkeys or Klaxons, or any new band begging to break through (The Vaccines aside).

This lineup is like a Reading and Leeds greatest hits set – the ‘naughties’ years; starring The Strokes, The National, Elbow and Interpol. And I can’t remember a R&L lineup ever featuring so many nostalgic acts, it just hasn’t been the festival’s style, and yet here are Pulp, The Offspring, Jimmy Eat World, Deftones and, er, Madness? Don’t get me wrong, these bands are popular and they more than earn their position but for goodness sake in 2006 we had young guns like Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Futureheads, The Cribs and of course Arctic Monkeys and Klaxons. Where are this year’s contemporary bands? 30 Seconds to Mars? Two Door Cinema Club? The View? Come on people!

I suppose this  rant is equally about the dire state of Rock music in general as it is about the poor selection by the Reading organizers, but there is surely a better lineup out there to be had? They should have taken risks; put The Vaccines and Noah and the Whale in positions that matter, book our two breakthrough heroes, Mumford and Sons and The XX, bring more acts over from America, bands like Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes, maybe even Kanye West or Eminem, and if you’re going metal then go all out and book Iron Maiden for goodness sakes – and why have Sonisphere got the big four, surely they should be at the home of Rock?

Still, I will be going for one day and I will be seeing The Strokes, The National, Crystal Castles, Bombay Bicycle Club, Jimmy Eat World and DEFINATLEY Madness. Reading and Leeds may be loosing it’s edge but that’s still a pretty convincing bunch of bands. And hey, maybe it is me just getting old and cynical.