FIRST IMPRESSIONS A decade ago, the Strokes were the elusive “next Nirvana” that rock critic types had spent a decade praying for, an indie-rock David to slay the big-biz Goliath.

The paradox at the heart of rock and roll is simple: it takes an immense amount of hard work - not to mention huge, greasy loads of cunning and strategy - to get ahead in a competitive field. And yet when best executed, top-notch rock appears effortless. For a business that requires so much actual sweat from its stars, the figurative sweat that allows those leather-clad Adonises to bound up on that stage and take the spotlight is airbrushed out like the wires in a Hong Kong fight sequence. And the greater the wave of hype that a band crest atop of, the more backstage conniving went into generating said wave. In the past decade, as the decline of the conventional recording industry has seen the hype waves become both smaller and more numerous, no one band have managed to navigate the push and pull of expectation and the generation of cool like the Strokes. And don't be fooled by their nonchalance: it's all been thought out.

Don't take my word for it - when I speak with Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., as he chills at their Whiz Kid Management offices in New York City, it's a phrase that comes up naturally, and often. We're discussing the Strokes' forthcoming fourth long-player, Angles (RCA), their first album in a five-year period that saw more-than-just-rumors of a band break-up as well as a not-tiny discography of band-member solo projects. But talk inevitably circles back to the Strokes' tortured/blessed career, and their magical way of turning board-room-esque calculation into off-the-cuff rock and roll. As singer Julian Casablancas sang in their breakthrough 2002 hit "Someday" (from debut Is This It), "I'm working so I don't have to try so hard." As with any band who can sustain the scrutiny of fame for a decade, if the Strokes' every move hadn't been thought out, they would probably have just collapsed in a heap. "Look, you have these five guys, and you put them together on this mission," Hammond explains, "and you have pressure, influence, life, etc. All of these things create what we do, but at the same time, the whole thing has always been very very thought out. Definitely very thought out."

It certainly seemed that way when the band bounded into the international consciousness a decade ago. Coming out of nowhere, early pre-album singles like "The Modern Age" and "Barely Legal" seemed an antidote to the prevailing rock trends of the time: high-tech post-NIN nü-metal and big-sweater-y UK jangle. The early Strokes singles were raw, sensitive, driving, and familiar. More important, they were economical, getting in and out of there without wasting time, packing in a complex mapping of guitarchitecture and finding room for thought-out guitar solos and lead breaks without sacrificing great choruses. To some, their music was a rock-and-roll resurrection after a dark decade. In many ways, the Strokes were the elusive "next Nirvana" that rock critic types had spent the decade praying for, an indie-rock David to slay the big-biz Goliath the way that scruffy group of Washington State wastrels did when they toppled Michael Jackson from the top of the charts in '92.

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