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Future Present Past
Did Shia LaBeouf pulling on a Strokes t-shirt in Transformers really mark the point of no return? The former Disney child star turned vaguely amusing surrealist already has much to answer for, so it might be a bit harsh to lay the decline of one of 21st Century America’s great indie outfits at his door.
But then the timelines kinda stack up.
It’s a theory Pitchfork has put forward – that at the time Michael Bay 2007’s monstrosity was busting blocks, New York’s finest well-to-do rockers (steady on, Koenig) were watching what was left of their Midas touch slip away, as the big screen nod prematurely ushered them off into classic rockdom.
After that, they could keep on slipping out LPs that were either simultaneously distant and try-hard (2011’s Angles) or fully unfurled their previously hidden freak flag (2013’s Comedown Machine) to mainstream indifference, safe in the knowledge that there was enough accumulated reverence for their opening pair of long-players to ensure they’d be headlining whatever festivals they fancied for years to come.
True believers like myself still gobbled up whatever we could get – pointing to the muscular swagger of a ‘Machu Picchu’ or teary falsetto, alien A-ha pop of ‘One Way Trigger’ as evidence they still had it, being underwhelmed as an excitable Zane Lowe gave a debut radio spin to a retrograde ‘All The Time’ – The Strokes cover The Strokes, but poorly! – and increasingly feeling after every half-hearted band camp quote that we were more invested at this stage than Julian, Nick, Nikolai, Albert and Fab were.
Perhaps Angles was the nadir in that regard. While their standards never dropped below a certain level and the odd peach like ‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’ popped up, you had the suspicion the five were hardly firm friends, much less a vital band, at that moment. Mr Casablancas’ vocals were recorded completely separately from the players, as he also found himself surrendering writing control to almost coax the others to fully engage, with mixed results. Past glories sounded like they were weighing heavily.
Comedown Machine, meanwhile, was the sound of them getting over themselves and back together. The goofball ’80s nostalgia Casablancas had displayed a mild obsession for since getting sober over a decade ago had fully blossomed as his guitarists showed their love for bubblegum metal, and schlocky synths crept to the fore – The Strokes were never the effortlessly cool chaps of their early press inches and photo shoots.
They were interested again, however. But for how long? And to what end? The record came and went with minimal impact, and the band seemed to fall back into the slumber suggested by closing lullaby oddity ‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’.
Well, they’ve woken up long enough to deliver their first EP since The Modern Age prefaced Is This It in 2001. It ain’t that, but happily the spark of passion evidenced on Comedown Machine hasn’t been snuffed out.
These three tracks – along with an ‘OBLIVIUS’ remix by the drummer that is actually very respectable – aren’t particularly remarkable in isolation and are unlikely to jumpstart The Strokes’ second successful act on their own, but they’re easy company and admirably… wacky, might be the word.
Future Present Past is fittingly titled, with the trio of songs kicking off on new ground for the band. ‘Drag Queen’ commences with a horror B-movie synth chug and Jules trying his best to stray from any perceptible melody. He tries on a throwaway British affect before the whole thing lurches into a more orthodox but still slurred chorus that rails tiredly against a “fucked-up system” and “sinister city”. The whole things wraps up with a sonic storm, atonal guitars and Casablancas taking his voice box for a joy ride. His 2014 record with The Voidz, Tyranny, is tellingly the major reference point.
To the “present” then, and ‘OBLIVIUS’ feels much more like home territory. The twin guitars lock into their respective lines beautifully and the singer rediscovers a bit of his old insouciance and nonchalant sex appeal as he talks about getting the object of his affections “with your pyjamas on”. ‘All The Time’ done correctly, in other words.
‘Threat Of Joy’ threatens to really thrill long-time fans. The rhythmic and melodic tropes of Is This It are essentially distilled and offered up in their most unrefined form. Opening with another playful Julian performance that sounds almost ad-libbed, here and there, in a totally ramshackle way, the fabled alchemy between the five is back again.
Sure, in terms of quality it would maybe trouble unreleased early demos like ‘In Her Prime’ for a b-side spot, but it’s a heartwarming stroll down memory lane nonetheless.
And maybe that’s enough. Maybe we shouldn’t be investing The Strokes with our own ambitions at this stage. They’re trying strange things and looking ahead, whilst also being happy throwing shapes like it’s 2001. Good for them.
Trying to wrap my head around this band in 2016, I eventually went back to the first interview with them I ever read way back when. One line stood out, written with a raised eyebrow by the Q writer in question:
If they’re lucky, declare The Strokes, they could eventually be as big as Guided By Voices.
Back then, the world was their oyster. How silly of them to be aiming to emulate the career of a little-known band from Dayton, Ohio, founded by a middle-aged school teacher, lacking a business plan and in thrall to ultra lo-fi recordings.
Baffling, when New York contemporaries Battles, for example, were calling them “the new Duran Duran”. As it turned out, it would be the Tennessee hillbillies that followed in their wake, Kings of Leon, ultimately achieving that kind of cynical chart success. The Strokes weren’t bothered. Hell, Robert Pollard and his GBV-rs have been more productive than them even after breaking up.
So The Strokes remain in limbo, enigmatic, out of their RCA deal and messing about on their singer’s label. Maybe not exactly relevant. But they’ve earned the right to do whatever they want and, with the Future Present Past EP, that genuinely seems to be music-making again.
Who knows where they go next? For the first time in a long time, it’s at least a question that’s intriguing to ponder.