Album Review: The Strokes – “Future Present Past EP”

The Strokes and sound as bored with themselves as the rest of the world is.

“Is this it?”

15 years ago, the world heard Julian Casablancas ask this question for the first time on the album with the same name. Back then, it was a young man asking whether or not his relationship with his girlfriend was as solid as he thought. Now, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s asking himself that same question, only this time he’s asking it about his band.

In today’s music scene where indie artists’ time in the spotlight seem to get shorter and shorter, The Strokes might as well be a legacy act at this point. They only appear together sporadically for the occasional concert or festival show, then splitting off to do solo projects. Even when they release new music, like 2013’s Comedown Machine, the effort seemed missing and the band felt like they were just seeing what stuck to the wall. So the question becomes “now what?”

“What” is Future Present Past EP, a collection of three new songs and one remix. The EP title actually makes a lot of sense, considering it starts where The Strokes want to take their sound and ends where The Strokes started with their sound. “Drag Queen” is everything The Strokes want to sound like: Casablancas’ fuzzed-out vocals, an uncomfortable beat, lyrics of an annoyed aging millennial hipster and a rather manic lead guitar from Nick Valensi. Nikolai Fraiture’s bass sounds like the beginnings of a Peter Hook bassline but never really goes anywhere, just like the rest of the song. Then there’s “Oblivius,” the present Strokes sound that’s as good as it’s ever been. The guitar interplay between Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. is delightful while Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti have a bopping backbeat. Casablancas seem much more comfortable here, almost recapturing his classic swagger while hitting the high notes the only way he can (meaning just barely). “Oblivius” is The Strokes with one foot in the fuzzed-out future and the other in the past when the wore hip clothes to look cooler than everyone else. Finally, there’s “Threat of Joy,” which sounds like something lost from the Is This It sessions: bright guitars, super simplistic bass line and Casablancas sounding like the mildly-annoyed twenty-something he once was.

 

 

Lyrically, “Threat of Joy” sounds like an alternate version of “Trying Your Luck.” Casablancas is just going with the flow of life (“I’m gonna take what comes my way / take what they give me”) and is optimistic about his future (“And for the first time in my life / I’m gonna get myself right”). “Oblivius” is Casablancas ready to retake his coolness, asking for someone to “Untame me / It’s not my midnight yet” and asks himself “What side are you standing on?” He even tries his hand at hashtag rap with “Act like a wolf but think like a sheep (Wall Street).” “Drag Queen” makes Casablancas seem like Grandpa Simpson yelling at a cloud. He doesn’t like the cool kids (“80s people dancing, ooh / Always get it right / I’d listen but I can’t tonight”), he hates modern city life (“I don’t understand / Your f***ed-up system / This sinister city”) and he doesn’t want anything to do with someone asking for “the old Strokes” (“I did not know that / Their bringing me back to my past”). The Strokes may want to advance their sound, but Casablancas doesn’t want anything to do with new music and would rather just make noise in the corner.

So again I ask, is this it? Is this all The Strokes have left to offer? Granted, Future Present Past EP is nothing terrible but it offers no reason as to why anyone should care about a new Strokes record. In fact, it may reveal that we never really needed The Strokes in the first place. The Strokes always sounded cool in concept, but in reality they could easily be beaten by their peers like Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party or Arctic Monkeys. It’s as if The Strokes liked being one of the first groups in the guitar-rock revival of the new millennium and just stayed there. Future Present Past EP is an overdue coda to a band as worn out as the old clothes they wore on MTV’s $2 Bill to look cool.

5/10

Jon Winkler is a 22-year-old movie/music nerd in Southampton, NY by way of Merrimack, NH. He loves watching, listening to, dissecting, mocking and talking about movies, television, music, video games and comics. He enjoys a good cheeseburger, believes CDs and vinyl are superior, likes to make people smile if they're having a rough day, and is rumored to be Batman (unconfirmed).
  • Wes Ott

    I love the idea of a 22 year old telling us why we don’t need a new Strokes album.

  • Matt Fangerenn

    Overly critical review, man. Appreciate the life of an artist, appreciate your own life, and you will appreciate art in all aspects and media. What would you consider a 10/10 album? Please respond to this comment with a review of your most inspirational album, which I’m sure must be a 10/10 if you have a true appreciation music.

    • maththemath

      I had never even seen a shooting star before. 25 years of rotations, passes through comets’ paths, and travel, and to my memory I had never witnessed burning debris scratch across the night sky. Radiohead were hunched over their instruments. Thom Yorke slowly beat on a grand piano, singing, eyes closed, into his microphone like he was trying to kiss around a big nose. Colin Greenwood tapped patiently on a double bass, waiting for his cue. White pearls of arena light swam over their faces. A lazy disco light spilled artificial constellations inside the aluminum cove of the makeshift stage. The metal skeleton of the stage ate one end of Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce, on the steps of the Santa Croce Cathedral. Michelangelo’s bones and cobblestone laid beneath. I stared entranced, soaking in Radiohead’s new material, chiseling each sound into the best functioning parts of my brain which would be the only sound system for the material for months.

      The butterscotch lamps along the walls of the tight city square bled upward into the cobalt sky, which seemed as strikingly artificial and perfect as a wizard’s cap. The staccato piano chords ascended repeatedly. “Black eyed angels swam at me,” Yorke sang like his dying words. “There was nothing to fear, nothing to hide.” The trained critical part of me marked the similarity to Coltrane’s “Ole.” The human part of me wept in awe.

      The Italians surrounding me held their breath in communion (save for the drunken few shouting “Criep!”). Suddenly, a rise of whistles and orgasmic cries swept unfittingly through the crowd. The song, “Egyptian Song,” was certainly momentous, but wasn’t the response more apt for, well, “Creep?” I looked up. I thought it was fireworks. A teardrop of fire shot from space and disappeared behind the church where the syrupy River Arno crawled. Radiohead had the heavens on their side.

      For further testament, Chip Chanko and I both suffered auto-debilitating accidents in the same week, in different parts of the country, while blasting “Airbag” in our respective Japanese imports. For months, I feared playing the song about car crashes in my car, just as I’d feared passing 18- wheelers after nearly being crushed by one in 1990. With good reason, I suspect Radiohead to possess incomprehensible powers. The evidence is only compounded with Kid A– the rubber match in the band’s legacy– an album which completely obliterates how albums, and Radiohead themselves, will be considered.

      Even the heralded OK Computer has been nudged down one spot in Valhalla. Kid A makes rock and roll childish. Considerations on its merits as “rock” (i.e. its radio fodder potential, its guitar riffs, and its hooks) are pointless. Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper. And not because it’s jazz or fusion or ambient or electronic. Classifications don’t come to mind once deep inside this expansive, hypnotic world. Ransom, the philologist hero of C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet who is kidnapped and taken to another planet, initially finds his scholarship useless in his new surroundings, and just tries to survive the beautiful new world.

      This is an emotional, psychological experience. Kid A sounds like a clouded brain trying to recall an alien abduction. It’s the sound of a band, and its leader, losing faith in themselves, destroying themselves, and subsequently rebuilding a perfect entity. In other words, Radiohead hated being Radiohead, but ended up with the most ideal, natural Radiohead record yet.

      “Everything in Its Right Place” opens like Close Encounters spaceships communicating with pipe organs. As your ears decide whether the tones are coming or going, Thom Yorke’s Cuisinarted voice struggles for its tongue. “Everything,” Yorke belts in uplifting sighs. The first-person mantra of “There are two colors in my head” is repeated until the line between Yorke’s mind and the listener’s mind is erased.

      Skittering toy boxes open the album’s title song, which, like the track “Idioteque,” shows a heavy Warp Records influence. The vocoder lullaby lulls you deceivingly before the riotous “National Anthem.” Mean, fuzzy bass shapes the spine as unnerving theremin choirs limn. Brash brass bursts from above like Terry Gilliam’s animated foot. The horns swarm as Yorke screams, begs, “Turn it off!” It’s the album’s shrill peak, but just one of the incessant goosebumps raisers.

      After the rockets exhaust, Radiohead float in their lone orbit. “How to Disappear Completely” boils down “Let Down” and “Karma Police” to their spectral essence. The string-laden ballad comes closest to bridging Yorke’s lyrical sentiment to the instrumental effect. “I float down the Liffey/ I’m not here/ This isn’t happening,” he sings in his trademark falsetto. The strings melt and weep as the album shifts into its underwater mode. “Treefingers,” an ambient soundscape similar in sound and intent to Side B of Bowie and Eno’s Low, calms after the record’s emotionally strenuous first half.

      The primal, brooding guitar attack of “Optimistic” stomps like mating Tyrannosaurs. The lyrics seemingly taunt, “Try the best you can/ Try the best you can,” before revealing the more resigned sentiment, “The best you can is good enough.” For an album reportedly “lacking” in traditional Radiohead moments, this is the best summation of their former strengths. The track erodes into a light jam before morphing into “In Limbo.” “I’m lost at sea,” Yorke cries over clean, uneasy arpeggios. The ending flares with tractor beams as Yorke is vacuumed into nothingness. The aforementioned “Idioteque” clicks and thuds like Aphex Twin and Bjork’s Homogenic, revealing brilliant new frontiers for the “band.” For all the noise to this point, it’s uncertain entirely who or what has created the music. There are rarely traditional arrangements in the ambiguous origin. This is part of the unique thrill of experiencing Kid A.

      Pulsing organs and a stuttering snare delicately propel “Morning Bell.” Yorke’s breath can be heard frosting over the rainy, gray jam. Words accumulate and stick in his mouth like eye crust. “Walking walking walking walking,” he mumbles while Jonny Greenwood squirts whale-chant feedback from his guitar. The closing “Motion Picture Soundtrack” brings to mind The White Album, as it somehow combines the sentiment of Lennon’s LP1 closer– the ode to his dead mother, “Julia”– with Ringo and Paul’s maudlin, yet sincere LP2 finale, “Goodnight.” Pump organ and harp flutter as Yorke condones with affection, “I think you’re crazy.” To further emphasize your feeling at that moment and the album’s overall theme, Yorke bows out with “I will see you in the next life.” If you’re not already there with him.

      The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax. It’s an album of sparking paradox. It’s cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womb-like, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes. It will cleanse your brain of those little crustaceans of worries and inferior albums clinging inside the fold of your gray matter. The harrowing sounds hit from unseen angles and emanate with inhuman genesis. When the headphones peel off, and it occurs that six men (Nigel Godrich included) created this, it’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who. Breathing people made this record! And you can’t wait to dive back in and try to prove that wrong over and over.