You have to feel bad for the Strokes. Perhaps no band in recent memory has shouldered the same weight of expectations. After one of the largest studio bidding wars for a rock band in years, it released Is This It in 2001, igniting a garage rock revival and cementing the band as one of the greatest names in the scene.
Twelve years later, that fire seemed to have fizzled down. After completing its five contractual records with RCA, many questioned if the band would even continue. In the Strokes’ few appearances, the group didn’t play a single song from its latest release, 2013’s Comedown Machine. Yet with little warning, the band surged out of limbo on June 3 with the release of the Future Present Past EP.
The Strokes, now signed to lead singer Julian Casablancas’ label Cult Records, has already started rolling the songs out in live performances, and even on a first listen, it’s clear why. The band members are having fun for the first time in what seems like forever. The EP is a short three songs, with a fourth that is a remix of the second by the band’s drummer, and each of these songs is clearly linked to one of the title words.
“Drag Queen” — the first track — is the link to the future. Driven by a simple beat and hollow, ‘70s sci-fi videogame-inspired synths, Casablancas’ muffled voice lays down a capitalist-fearing warning: “I don’t understand / Your fucked-up system … Try to sell the water / Try to sell the air / Try to sell your daughter / Try to sell her hair.” Backed by a soaring, almost orchestral guitar riff, the piece sounds like the band’s take on the themes driving Muse’s The Resistance. Or Drones. Any Muse, really. In the end, that’s the song’s greatest pitfall — that despite the novelty the Strokes brings to the table sonically, the track (the chorus especially) feels like well-trodden ground in a well-planted field of Orwellian-tinged nightmare calls and doesn’t really do anything innovative.
“OBLIVIUS” is the present-themed track sandwiched in the middle of the EP. It’s the most straightforward of the three songs, held aloft by a simple two-note bass line and accompanying guitar riff. It’s the EP’s most sonically lyrical track, and perhaps points to a hopeful future for the band as Casablancas sings, “Untame me / It’s not my midnight yet / … Untame me, it’s time / I know the way uptown.” It also alludes to the band’s current position in the music world, as Casablancas screams in the choruses, “What side are you standing on?” Looking at the confoundingly mixed responses to the Strokes’ every work, it seems like the music world is simultaneously for and against it, and that truth is not lost on the band members.
Following a biting, screaming guitar solo about three minutes in, “OBLIVIUS” takes a dramatic turn into a more muted, “Reptilia”-esque riff that carries the song through to its end. The shift adds a degree of dynamism to a song that might have languished in its two chord structure otherwise. There’s nothing fancy going on here, but it’s fun, and that quickly becomes the most important factor as the EP progresses and you realize what you wanted all along was just to hear the members of the Strokes jamming to something they like.
The real gem of the EP is “Threat of Joy,” with a title indicative of the project’s core message. For everyone waiting for a return to the easy, flowing guitar riffs of the likes of “Alone, Together” and “Trying Your Luck” from the band’s debut, this is it. Casablancas begins with a taunt: “OK, I see how it is now / You don’t have time to play with me anymore / That’s how it goes, I guess.” It’s easy to see that taunt directed at us, the listeners — the Strokes fans too caught up in the band having to be revolutionary to let it just make some damn music.
There are myriad themes wrapped into “Threat of Joy,” and the allusions to Casablancas’ own struggles give the song some of the depth that is lacking in the cut-and-dry world of “Drag Queen.” The major theme of happiness being a foreign, unknown threat has multiple layers and ends the EP on a much more thoughtful note while retaining its playful vibe.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to put these songs up against the instant classics that first catapulted the Strokes into the spotlight. Yet the EP challenges us not to and leaves us with a clear take away: The Strokes are back, and we have a lot to look forward to.
Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected].