The Strokes are so not back, suckers


Let's cut right to the chase.

The Strokes? The Strokes are not back, not in the sense that Bob Dylan stalker-types fire up a new Bob Dylan record and nod and purse their lips and say "Bob's back, man."

The Strokes are back in a back-home-a-couple-years-after-stepping-out-for-a-pack-of-Marlboros way. Yesterday, the too-hep-for-shampoo fivesome made "Under Cover of Darkness" -- the lead single from the forthcoming Angles -- available for free download on their web site.

You might wanna pre-game it here first, though, because there's a mad rush on to grab the thing that's already caused the band's website to crash, and, well -- and this is the main thing -- "Darkness" just isn't much of a lead single.

[jump] See, the genius of The Strokes 1.0 was making shaggy, garage-y douchebag rock sound almost impossibly effortless, as if Fab and Julian and Albert and the other two happened to be lounging around after hours at some Lower East Side dive bar and started the ultimate pick-up band on a bet or a dare. Consider the scuzzy jailbait thrill of "Barely Legal," the hungover quarter-profundities and happy-hour hook that power "Last Nite," or the tinny prescription-drug cocktail riptide of "The Modern Age"; there's a passive-aggressive edge to those songs, an overall sideways lack of urgency that's indispensible, narcoleptic, catatonic/maniacal vocals baring fangs at music that appears to be almost metronomically even even as it proceeds forward at a rakish slant. That's why Is This It doubles as a blessing and a curse for these guys: even if you were totally and hopelessly square back in 2001, the album is capable of evoking a nostalgia for libidinous, licentious, even litigious adventures you never had. It's as ready a time-capsule conduit as it is easy to listen to.

After that initial high, everything else was a futile attempt as chasing the dragon down Fifth Avenue in a pair of Chuck Taylors. Well, maybe not totally futile; even though 2003's Room On Fire didn't upgrade the Strokes playbook much, it was a nonetheless valiant attempt to make lightning strike twice, and gave the world the irresistibly louche "12:51" and a guitar tuning trick that sounds suspiciously like a Reagan-era synth pre-set. Flash-forward another three years or so and the lads cut the relatively mature, paradigm-challenging First Impressions of Earth; lackluster sales suggest that the world was not ready to hear the Strokes evolve much beyond "Last Nite"-esque jangle. (Statistically-speaking, chances are pretty good that you, dear reader, were among the Philistines, so for the love of Christ, check "Red Light" out, like, now.) Then, in the wake of general public indifference, Drew Barrymore, and a whole museum of Strokes wannabees, they drifted into solo adventures: Fab was in Strokes-sound-kinda-alike band that actually made a solid album, Jules cut a wobbly solo disc, bro'd down with the Lonely Island, and improbably palled around with Santigold and Pharrell Williams (blech); Albert recast himself as a mumble-mouth soft pop troubadour; and Nikolai availed himself of something called Nickel Eye, which I never bothered with.

Which brings us to now, and "Darkness," and how it's not even a quarter as sweet and life-affirming, as, say, a not-so-celebrated Strokes cut like "Juicebox" or even the cuddly, loose-limbed, Warhol-referencing Little Joy tune I linked to above. I mean, sure, the guitars gleam and winge and sparkle and generally exploit that "12:51" guitar-as-synth effect, and recall Thin Lizzy. But the little fills, all the frills, and all the technically-fine clever busy moves here seems intended to disguise - and really, really fails to disguise - the complete and utter lack of a dynamite, slipped-you-a-Mickey hook.

Meanwhile, the song boasts what might be the first ever genuinely forgettable Julian Casablancas vocal, even as it's one of his least detached; it's as though he's overcompensating with the loss of his coveted "primary songwriter for the Strokes" role by faking yelpy enthusiasm, but the problem with that is that nobody really wants to hear yelpy enthusiasm from Julian Casablancas in the context of a Strokes song; everybody wants to hear out-of-Ambien Julian casting about, unfocused. Plus, his vocal is mixed so low that it's hard to draw a bead on whatever he's going on about, and who would want to try? Listening to "Darkness" is too much like work to really make finding out what's at the core of the song worth it, and I feel pity for writers who're being paid to endorse this.

Of course, this could all be a feint; maybe the Strokes and their management figured that the best course of promotional action was to dangle the least delicious of their carrot in advance of a record that's coming almost a half decade after the last one. We can only hope.