The Strokes may be kingpins in post-millennium alt rock, but that label is a Sisyphean boulder they've been rolling uphill from the outset. It's tough to move forward when critics are just waiting for you to fall back—and that's been the case from the beginning, when the avalanche of hyperbolic press came before the public could pass judgment—but the Strokes persevered, releasing the infectious lo-fi rumble of Is This It and the decent (but comparatively disappointing) Room on Fire.
Now that giant stone of a reputation stands before them again, as First Impressions of Earth—2006's first big release—brings the band under the glare of the media spotlight for a third time. Last week the Strokes had their big coming-out-again party with a special radio-sponsored gig at the Crocodile, a venue they hit years back and have long since outgrown. The special End performance was open to the public—if you were quick enough to buy a ticket in the 11 minutes before it sold out, or won entry from the station—and a packed house got a run-through of all three records and glib advice from frontman Julian Casablancas about not reading your own press before playing a show. A couple Strokes even hung around Seattle long enough to catch the Three Imaginary Girls' showcase with Red Pony Clock and Speaker Speaker.
But the real question is, where does Earth stand in the Strokes continuum? For the first couple listens, the disc seems to have wobbly legs; there are few easy hits here. The Strokes tinker with their signature style most delicately; Casablancas maintains his cool demeanor—a mix of blow-offs and come-ons, of strained yearning and practiced preening, but for this round his voice breaks through all the distortion. The clarity of the vocals and the familiar clipped guitar jangles carry the better parts of the record, which waver between Iggy Pop–primed tracks ("Heart in a Cage") and general wailing about romantic tiffs ("Vision of Division"). Casablancas shines when he sounds honestly fired up and the rest of the band explodes with the same energy. "Division"'s flights into passionate frustration and accelerated tempos give the song life where other parts of Earth lie limp. The same can't be said for "On the Other Side," where the singer's pronouncement of boredom is delivered so half-assedly it's a chore just listening to it. The band's been whining about being "tired of everyone I know/of everyone I see on the street or on TV" since day one. And hearing Casablancas repeat a chorus of "I've got nothing to say" on "Ask Me Anything" becomes a parody in such a dull song. The new record—like the band itself—grows on me the more time I give it, and the Strokes do deserve credit for attempting to fine tune their own sound rather than ape current trends. I just wish that for a band supposedly on top of the world, the Strokes didn't sound so unenthused about their perch.