What's the point of being the Last Gang in Town if you can't run a con game and rob old people? The Strokes — street kings of New York City's downtown rock scene since their 2001 platinum debut — have pulled a classic bait-and-switch on multiple levels, teasing the public with a return-to-Is This It single ("Under Cover of Darkness") and then Cars-jacking a guy who's now in his 60s (Ric Ocasek). Some of the weight of expectation borne by the Strokes' five-years-in-the-making fourth album belongs to Sofia Coppola; her soundtrack to Somewhere blazed the Strokes b-side "I'll Try Anything Once" — actually a demo version of 2006's "You Only Live Once" — into cinematic splendor. The song is feral and romantic, uncomfortably close and portraying frontman Julian Casablancas at his most human and very best, turning the act of being bored into existentialist art. There is nothing like it on Angles.
But there is "Under Cover of Darkness," a bejangled guitar-hook concession to the old, familiar Strokes sound that is, upon closer inspection, one of the better self-parodies in rock history. At various points during the song, Casablancas sings the following lines: "It's a nightmare." "I just won't be a puppet on a string." "I've been out around this town, everybody's singing the same song for 10 years." At some point, it's not just a reflection of the love/hate relationship the Strokes have with fans and critics — it's cake shoved in your face. Don't you like cake? The choppy riffs and fills that reinvented guitar rock a decade ago makes "Under Cover of Darkness" one of the top five Strokes songs of all-time, but it's also a rare moment of transparency for the famously clandestine Casablancas.
Much of Angles harks back to that other time Casablancas revealed himself: Two years ago, on his solo album Phrazes For The Young, he guiltily admitted of his stepping stones to fame, "I slapped them as I thanked them." Even though the music of Angles was entirely written by the four non-singing Strokes, it has the same new-wave sheen of Casablancas' Phrazes. Opener "Machu Picchu," penned by guitarist Nick Valensi, telegraphs the agenda of retro-futurist pop with an oddly Caribbean-moonbounce feel. Angles doesn't sit still long enough to gel, but its new directions are fascinating, particularly on standout tracks "Two Kinds of Happiness" (in which Casablancas adopts Ocasek's clipped vocal rhythm) and "Taken For A Fool" (which turns on a dime to produce a singalong chorus). "Gratisfaction" takes a rollicking Thin Lizzy approach and lands it with the kind of sticky guitars and backbeat that Sloan claimed as its province. The only real drawback to this new songwriting democracy is that we don't know whom to blame for "You're So Right," a grating Radiohead redux. Scrutiny has been this band's cross to bear for a decade, but the bottom line on Angles is fairly easy to draw: An uneven effort with four or five essential songs, better by half than Casablancas' solo turn, and just left-field enough to be someone's favorite dark-horse Strokes album.