After their dull third album, “First Impressions of Earth,” and a subsequent five-year vanishing act, we should be greeting Julian Casablancas and his crew with arched eyebrows. Instead, fans have been stretching their arms wide for the return of rock’s post-millennial saviors ever since the band reunited onstage in Chicago last summer. In the coming months, the Strokes will headline Coachella, Bonnaroo and the Sweetlife Festival’s inaugural concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in May.
Why all the fuss? Long story long: With the release of their just-about-perfect 2001 debut “Is This It,” the Strokes were a band that valiantly tried to save mainstream rock from the mires inhabited by Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, Creed and Staind. Then everyone bought an iPod and popular taste splintered. As the decade rolled on, rock would always need some saving — now more than ever, forever.
Today, as rock groups tend to cram all of their brilliance into tiny, MP3-size capsules, we don’t want a band that can write a great song. We want a band that can write a dozen great songs.
With “Angles,” we’ll have to settle for four. The first one, “Machu Picchu,” kicks the album off with a cocky, post-disco strut that bodes well for the next 30 minutes. “I’m just trying to find a mountain I can climb,” Casablancas bellows, puffing his chest over the sleek, bongo-thumping crescendo. (Any man who can sing confidently over bongo thumping means business.)
Then the lead single, “Under Cover of Darkness,” snaps into the sound fans fell in love with 10 years ago — Nick Valensi’s and Albert Hammond Jr.’s guitars jangling and buzzing in conversation over Fab Moretti’s jouncy drum beat. As he slouches toward the chorus, it’s tough to tell whether Casablancas is singing to a lover, a friend, his bandmates or the world: “I’ll wait for you / Will you wait for me, too?”
“Two Kinds of Happiness” finds the sweet spot between Tom Petty and the Cars, but things dip with the portentous meandering of “You’re So Right.” Jump ahead to “Taken for a Fool,” a song with a lean, sinister verse that landslides into a big, fist-pumping refrain. “I don’t need anyone with me right now,” Casablancas sings with a trademark shrug.
That’s our cue to hit stop and walk away. Turns out, “Angles” is the first Strokes album where Casablancas didn’t work alone, sharing songwriting duties with his bandmates. Nice guy, right? Not really. He recorded all of his vocals from a remote studio and mostly communicated with the band via e-mail.
That gives “Angles” a juicy subplot — Great American Rock Band Tries to Keep It Together as Frontman Reluctantly Welcomes Democracy — but it’s the album’s second half where everything falls apart.
There’s soft-focus new wave (“Games”), clumsy quasi-bossa-nova (“Call Me Back”) and a charged-up romper that could have been great if it were a little more coherent (“Gratisfaction”). Instead of guiding these tunes, the deposed bandleader sounds like a ghost wandering through the walls of a maze.
So why even keep the band together? Because, as Casablancas recently told Spin, “people want a rock band of their generation they can trust.”
Well, at least one they can root for. And anyone who lives in Washington knows that a team that wins only half the time is still worth cheering on.
Recommended tracks: “Machu Picchu,” “Under Cover of Darkness,” “Taken for a Fool”