When the Strokes blossomed beyond Manhattan five years ago, they gave rock ‘n’ roll formulas a good name thanks to variations on a Velvet Underground/Feelies theme. Now they’re armed with three albums of material, and their show is an amalgamation of sturdy and sloppy examples of how to work their specific formula, which calls for driving, trebly guitar bits, sudden crescendos and smartly placed AM radio hit hooks from the early ’70s. When the music is packed tight and neat, the Strokes are superb; show a little flab and they veer toward the dreadful.
Big as the band has become — they sold out two nights at the Gibson Amphitheater to fist-pumping fans who sang along to most of the 90 minutes — their first single, “Last Night,” looms large over the entire process. It is the cleanest, best articulated song in their repertoire; catchy at first listen, it has been developing the patina of a masterpiece as more and more indie rock bands try their own derivation on this formula.
“Last Night” has imitators but no real follower. Songs from the latest album, “First Impressions of Earth” (RCA), push the Strokes style into several broader directions that, boiled down, are experiments in altering the dark and the light. In many of their songs, the guitarists in particular have freeze-dried the excesses of 1970s rock and revived those elements in small quantities.
It’s their secret: To an older audience, they sound familiar, while the younger crowd’s never heard anything like it.
Singer Julian Casablancas appears to be coming out of his shell. He more often sings with urgency than disinterest, addresses the audience rather than his pals on the side of the stage and varies the textures in his delivery. But rather than segue from tune to tune and hit with an impact, the band shut the lights after every tune, creating the effect that each song is a vignette unto itself.
It’s a style that unfortunately appears to be catching on. The National, another New York rock band that earned U.K. kudos before tackling the States, played the Troubadour Wednesday and compartmentalized each number, which drained any carryover effect one song would have to the next. The National is armed with pop-inspired takes on the British guitar rock of the early 1980s; they are one of hundreds of acts stepping onto the Strokes’ path.
When the tour closes April 26 in Washington, D.C., band will have done 52 shows this year, having swept through the U.K. and North America.