The Strokes, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

You play it, I'll mumble along
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The first time I met Julian Casablancas, he gave me a lovebite. The second time, he affected not to remember the first time. Men for you, eh girls? Typical.

Then again, maybe he genuinely didn't remember anything. After seeing The Strokes tonight, that would figure. Early on in the set, the still baby-faced frontman is trying to communicate. Well, kinda. "Yeah mur mur mur thank you for coming down mur mur mur unless you're right down the front of course mur mur mur or there up top."

Nobody has a clue what Casablancas is saying (including, perhaps, the man himself). The lengths to which Julian will go in order to render his statements incomprehensible is becoming absurd. From the very beginning, he's always disguised his vocals with an effect that sounds like a broken tannoy from Coney Island (which, in turn, disguises the fact that his lyrics, by and large, communicate nothing worth communicating). This slurring of speech between songs, however, is taking the principle to a ridiculous extreme.

Why don't rich kids enunciate? (Let's be under no illusions here: before The Strokes took off, they already didn't need to do a day's work for the rest of their lives. Casablancas' dad founded the Elite Models Agency, his sidekick's dad was a successful songwriter, and the others were no ragged-trousered ruffians either.) This, perhaps, is their form of rebellion: a lazy middle finger cocked to those elocution classes at that Swiss boarding school. A certain, casual "so what?" fecklessness passes for cool in some circles.

Maybe, on the other hand, there's a simpler explanation. On the afternoon of the gig, Julian Casablancas is spotted wandering around London, dazed and confused, and completely lost. He's overheard asking a stranger for directions: "What's your name? Margo? Margo, babe, what cool hair you have, here, let me buy you a coffee."

By the time he reaches the stage at the Shepherds Bush Empire, he may be in the right place, but he still looks - and sounds - lost. Without wishing to cast aspersions on Julian's social pastimes, let's charitably assume that jet lag can play havoc with your sense of coordination. It says something about the excellence of the four other Strokes as a musical unit - or, if you want to put a less favourable spin on it, something about Casablancas' relative lack of importance in the scheme of things - that this low-key London show is a long way from being a disaster.

Kicking off with "Heart In A Cage", one of several surprisingly metallic tracks on new album First Impressions Of Earth, The Strokes - their singer's catatonic state notwithstanding - do a decent job of recapturing the excitement of 2001. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy to be talking about 2001 as if it was the Pleistocene Era, but the specific facts of The Strokes' career have given them a kind of progeria (the rare rapid ageing disease which afflicts some infants).

Casablancas turns 28 this year, which has me wondering how The Strokes will maintain their cool when male pattern baldness and/or greying starts to set in, and those chubby puppy cheeks have sagged into a pear-shape. In rock 'n' roll terms, however, they're far older. This, of course, is because the music they made wasn't new in the first place (but an artful, and then-timely adaptation of late Seventies Noo Yawk New Wave). The revolution The Strokes kick-started was primarily a stylistic one: after years of Radiohead misery, suddenly uptight guitars and skintight clothing were back on the agenda. For the first time in a generation, "it was cool to be cool".

And, now that scores of younger, sharper bands, with even tighter guitars (and clothing) have come along, The Strokes have been left looking a little tarnished. Some of this is their own doing (second album Room On Fire wasn't a patch on the still-thrilling Is This It), some of it is out of their hands. Their inability to write a great lyric, however, is chronic. In 2001, The Strokes didn't need to say something in order to "say something". In 2006, it simply isn't good enough.

And yet, in the dark, in the moment, it doesn't matter. Casablancas, when he puts his mind to it, can sing his blank banalities with primal, pre-ironic rock 'n' roll passion, like he's Jimmy Osterberg, Jimmy Morrison, one of those guys. More importantly, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr's guitars shudder and shimmer like a gleaming, finely-tuned machine going into overdrive, and any band that can casually drop "Last Nite" and "Hard To Explain" one after the other is never gonna struggle to lift a crowd. (Well, within certain limits. Last time I reviewed The Strokes, they made the error of touring the hangars and sheds, and they flopped flat. This time, sensibly, the largest venue on the itinerary is Hammersmith Apollo.)

For this gig to elevate itself from mere "quite good" status into "brilliant", there's a test The Strokes must pass. Their early repertoire included a song called "New York City Cops", a roaring Dolls/Stooges monster which, in the weirdness of the September 11 aftermath, was - with unforgivable cowardice - dropped from Is This It for fear of offending Manhattan's real-life Officer Wiggums. Will they play it tonight?

Two songs into the encore, I get my answer. Yep, they play it. Yep, they're brilliant. Yep, I'm sold. Casablancas, however, still seems bewildered. He makes another attempt to speak. "Uh... Toosday!... Yeah!"

The Strokes' tour continues to 18 Feb