The Strokes, ULU, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The Strokes were always an unlikely bet for rock'n'roll's great hope. They have never stood for anything in particular, or said anything worthwhile. Their sound was nothing new, borrowed wholesale from the late 1970s punk heyday of their New York home.

Four years on, their lauded debut, Is This It, sounds less like a call to arms than a narcotised shrug, with occasional, frenetic bursts of energy. Where Kurt Cobain's grunge generation sometimes seemed to complain about nothing, The Strokes' singer, Julian Casablancas, couldn't even be bothered to do that.

And yet, somehow, The Strokes kick-started the guitar rock revival we're now living in. But indifference to advancing their sound cost them ground, leaving them looking foolish as The White Stripes and others marched past. So their upcoming third album, First Impressions of Earth, may be make or break. And tonight's comeback gig, at a tiny college venue, may decide which one it will be.

They come on, late, with neon-haloed hair. An army-jacketed, shades-masked Casablancas pauses to converse with the fans in front, teasing them with close-up star quality. Then the band kick in with the raucous new single "Juicebox", and the comeback has begun.

Between the songs, Casablancas sounds fashionably, inarticulately slurred. The first, unbroken batch of new songs is similarly drifty, striking up little passion in a crowd surely ready for a special gig. "Vision of Division" follows, an amphetamine-abused reggae riff stapled to a soaring, impatient chorus, its bucking, sustained guitar climax a timely sign that these Strokes are still a rock'n'roll band.

"Razorblade" is soon heisting Barry Manilow's "Mandy" for its chorus, with shameless and funny finesse. "The world is in your hand or at your throat," Casablancas advises.

He promises: "This is our last new song", before "You Only Live Once"'s rolling optimism. Then we're rewarded with a perfect Strokes jukebox, pumping out the hits. "Hard to Explain", one of their finest songs, understated and full of pauses, is followed by "New York City Cops" - an anti-police rant suppressed in the US post-9/11, but here the surprise ignition for final, thrilled abandon in the crowd. By "Reptilia", the fans have lost it. And The Strokes, it transpires, still have it.