“The moon, the buildings – so romantic, just the two of us,” singer Julian Casablancas said in a dry growl, waiting for the rest of the Strokes to gun their engines for the encore at the band’s SXSW show on March 17th in Austin, Texas. He was actually talking to a crowd that, from the back, looked more like it was in five figures. A week before the release of its fourth album, Angles, the New York quintet headlined a free outdoor show at Auditorium Shores, downtown along the Colorado River. The setting was fabulous: a cool clear evening, capped with fireworks over the stage during the final song, “Last Nite.” The breeze blowing across the field wasn’t always so kind to the PA, muffling chunks of the crisp guitar interplay and deadening Casablancas’ rusted yowl in the neatly ironic opener, “What Ever Happened”.
That is a question people had every right to ask about this band in the five years since its last album. Angles repays that test of faith; it is the best record the Strokes have made since their 2001 debut, Is This It. But while they played fast and hard in Austin, in cutting tangles of aggressive treble, the Strokes – Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti – also performed with a distracted concentration, precise but distant. The show felt more like a visceral recital than an exultant return. After nuking “Take It or Leave it,” the Strokes walked off without saying a word, not even a cliched “Thank you and good night.” It took awhile for the audience to realize the band was gone and the main set was over – partly because it wasn’t that easy to see them while they were on stage. The Strokes played without spotlights, lit from the back like mod silhouettes. The only way you could tell, from the top of the hill, that a real band was making whiplash mayhem with “Reptilia” and “The Modern Age”: There was one on the giant video screen.
The Strokes continue to rely heavily on that first album for their live repertoire: They played more than half of its 11 tracks, as if they suspect they’ll never equal that perfection. But the Strokes showed the right confidence in their new LP, performing five of its ten songs, including the bleak torpedo “You’re So Right,” with Casablancas’ vocal dripping with distortion and contempt, and “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight,” the only track on the record to survive the early, otherwise discarded sessions with producer Joe Chicarelli. The Strokes are still not doing two of the album’s best songs live: “Machu Picchu” and “Two Kinds of Happiness.” But the band has a couple of weeks to work on that, before the Strokes get to New York’s Madison Square Garden – where the crowd will also be in five figures, and the sound should be loud and clear.