While the Strokes had let it slip last fall that they had entered the studio to record a few new tunes, the New York outfit’s Future Present Past was still launched on the quick. Like other surprise releases from artists including Beyoncé, Radiohead, and Kendrick Lamar, there was a very small lead-up to the release of the EP. It’s become the new norm to catch your fans off-guard.
Just ahead of formally introducing fans to the material, the quintet’s familiar, circle-encased logo was projected onto building in New York and London, Batman style. Or perhaps you could liken this to how Drake similarly teased the arrival of his recently released Views. It may be worth noting that there’s another parallel between the 6 God’s album and the latest release from Julian Casablancas and co.: both are mixed bags. Thing is, while Drake’s album is an overly-long, 80-minute cycle, the Strokes latest set offers but three original tracks.
On the whole, the release scales back the new wave experimentalism of 2013’s uneven Comedown Machine release, but Future Present Past opener “Drag Queen” still comes soaked in synth work. It begins with 12 bars of Fabrizio Moretti delivering a direct, one-and-two beat, but the master drummer gets whimsical with his rhythms once a cloud of keyboards and a dreamy, New Order-grade bass line enter the mix. Complimenting the retro lean, vocalist Casablancas’ begins to sing about “’80s people dancing.”
This isn’t a party track, though, with a confused Casablancas noting “I don’t understand your fucked up system.” He weighs in on cold-hearted capitalism’s marketing of natural resources and people, spouts of on war profiteering, hints at the failure of the prison system, and maybe takes a pot-shot at the boxing scene. All good points, but the vocalist kind of loses the plot in the second verse, where his cool guy croon gets a bit too unhinged and unintelligible.
Interestingly, it’s a freakishly atonal guitar solo that brings the track back from the point of oblivion. It sounds like Adrian Belew ripping over a Bowie track, circa Lodger, and it’s stunning.
While “OBLIVIUS” sinks into a deep, New York City rock groove, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. add some acrobatics to the track by conjuring the sounds of Saharan desert funk, their double-guitar harmony snaking around the rhythm section. While still filtering his vocals through the same distortion patch he has since the early ’00s, Casablancas tries to shake his style up a bit with some quickly-paced wordplay. The move, it would seem, is triggered with the meta opening line: “Untame me.” Unfortunately, his overly dramatic performance somehow seems to blend a blood-starved Bela Lugosi with the flair of fellow Aughts-period buzz dominator Brandon Flowers, an odd mix to say the least. Cheers to trying something new, but returning to his standard flow on the chorus is a boon.
With the arrangement of “Threat of Joy” seemingly in line with the sounds of the Strokes’ much-loved 2001 debut, Is This It, you could consider this cut the “Past” part of Future Present Past. It’s a welcomed, nostalgic turn for the band, with Casablancas settling into Lou Reed mode quite comfortably. The song’s bright shuffle, however, comes with some potentially ominous foreshadowing. After a spoken intro, Casablancas sings of taking a chance on life. Lastly, it finds the crooner anticipating a tidal wave.
A few years back, the band’s Comedown Machine veered a bit too of course for fans. Future Present Past is but a mere taste of what the Strokes are capable of in 2016, but the band may have settled for something a bit too well-tread this time around. It’s a conundrum for a veteran act to be in, for sure. It’s possible that Casablancas and the rest of the crew are just waiting for that tidal wave to thrust them towards a new creative period.
– review by Gregory Adams