Hook up with the right hype machine and it's easy to become a rock star. It's nearly impossible, however, to stay one. The masses require a constant feed of whatever made them like you in the first place. Critics want artistic growth. The label needs units moved, lots of them and quickly. It's the rare band that can satisfy such contradictory career demands, but the Strokes are trying -- and with more success than most.
Clocking in at 57 minutes, the band's third album, ''First Impressions of Earth," is almost as long as the first two albums, ''Is This It?" and ''Room on Fire," put together. The supersizing of the Strokes isn't limited to running time, either. Under the guidance of seasoned producer David Kahne (Paul McCartney, the Bangles, Sugar Ray) and mixing whiz Andy Wallace, the New York quintet's brusque, trebly speedballs have been jacked up into a brawnier racket. Julian Casablancas's voice, previously deadened and buried in the mix, bolts bright and crackling from the speakers. And these former slaves to modern-rock fashion are making up for lost time with a chorus (on ''Razorblade") that nicks Barry Manilow's ''Mandy," an off-kilter ballad (''Ask Me Anything") that trades angular guitars for a wheezing Mellotron, and more than one nod to reggae.
''First Impressions of Earth," in stores today, isn't a thrill ride. But brash doesn't always mean brave, and sometimes a slow tempo is a riskier venture than a careening punk tune. The Strokes' signature swagger (and its secret twin, insecurity) has been replaced with a deeper sort of confidence. It's hard to imagine the coiled yet temperate ''Killing Lies," shape-shifting ''Vision of Division," or a woozy waltz like ''15 Minutes" on either of the band's earlier albums.
The Strokes were, and are, stealthy classicists, and the band hasn't lost its knack for making meticulously crafted tracks feel utterly exuberant. Album opener ''You Only Live Once" twitches and chugs on a sea of Cars-caliber riffs that lead to one perfect guitar part. (Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi's dueling axes are dazzling and piquant throughout; unfortunately they dominate to the point of fatigue.) ''Juicebox," the disc's first single, is an arena anthem masquerading as a perverted post-punk spy theme, and ''Evening Sun" owes as much to the Beatles as to Lou Reed.
''I love you more than being 17," Casablancas sings on the latter, and that's the best lyric on an album that (true to form) serves up such inscrutable babble as ''Don't be a coconut/God is trying to talk to you" -- followed in short order by the more palatable confession: ''I've got nothing to say."
Honestly, it doesn't matter. Nobody's turning to the Strokes for solace or philosophy -- just familiar goods from an ambitious rock band that should sell like crazy.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org