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Just what we needed 

The Strokes are the answer to a jittery New York state of mind

The Strokes' Is This It couldn't have arrived at a better time for New Yorkers -- or the rest of us. Fast and frenetic, with a steely underlying optimism, a unique sense of humor and plenty of melodic punch, the band's full-length debut is the perfect elixir for NYC's ailing downtown music scene and many a terror-weary post-911 soul.

But even the normally extroverted Strokes were emotionally derailed by their hometown's recent devastation.

"It was really weird," says 20-year-old guitarist Nick Valensi. "On [the morning of Sept. 11], my mother woke me up with the news. I live on 7th Street, not too far from the World Trade Center. It wasn't dusty [at my place], but I just remember how everything smelled. I just moped around all day. Then that night we went into the studio and finished 'When It Started.'"

The five prep-school buds have spent the past year undergoing their initiation into New York's inner circle of cool. They've since broken out of that circle with fashion shoots for glossy girl mags, a European festival tour and a four-star review in Rolling Stone. Following on the heels of the Strokes' 40,000-selling EP, The Modern Age, Is This It was already selling well in Europe before Sept. 11. But after the terrorist attacks, the band decided to delay the U.S. release, replacing "New York City Cops" with "When It Started." With its down-and-dirty bass line and a phrase that pokes Beastie Boys-style fun at the police ("New York City cops ain't too smart"), "Cops" isn't controversial. But out of respect for the city, the NYPD and their own careers, the Strokes decided to pull the song.

"We made the decision immediately to take it off," says Valensi. "We didn't want our album to be overshadowed by current events."

Another change was made before Is This It hit U.S. shelves earlier this month: The "ass picture" (as the band refers to the original cover photo of a woman slapping her naked behind with a leather-gloved hand) was traded for a nondescript abstract image of swirling blue-and-yellow fractals.

Some folks might accuse the punk-inspired Strokes of going soft by modifying Is This It, perhaps to ensure maximum domestic sales. But the band stands by its choices. "[Lead singer] Julian [Casablancas] just found this image that he deemed cooler than the ass," Valensi says. "That's all."

After a media frenzy earlier in the year made the guys feel more like paper dolls than rockers, the Strokes have been downplaying everything about their image -- though it doesn't help that Casablancas' father, John, is the founder of the prestigious Elite modeling agency.

"If we didn't play cool music, people wouldn't care what we wear," says Valensi. "We try to look sharp, but it's way secondary to the music."

Their Tom Verlaine haircuts and tight jeans more accurately recall CBGB's '70s scene than do their new-wave guitar riffs and Casablancas' scratchy vocals. Yet the Strokes' press kit is full of nothing but comparisons to Verlaine's Television and that other New York band, the Velvet Underground.

"I don't mind being compared to the Velvet Underground," Valensi says. "But the only thing that sucks is when people miss out on our other influences. Nobody ever writes about Bob Marley or the Cars or Elvis Costello or Guided By Voices."

Thirty-five minutes of 4/4 rave-ups with nary a ballad in sight, Is This It isn't retro, yet it also doesn't fit the musical generation of its barely twentysomething creators. By Valensi's estimation, most of his bandmates were between 10 and 14 years old when Nirvana's Nevermind exploded. And by the time the Limp Bizkits and Eminems of the world arrived, the Strokes' desire to, as Valensi puts it, "be in a really good band and always sound original" prevented them from becoming the next Sum 41.

The Strokes' live show, with its ear-ringing guitars, maxed-out amps and sweaty, pogo-ing fans, arrived in Europe over the summer, introducing the band to the rest of the world via huge sheds and festival lawns.

"We went from playing rooms to playing to 50,000 people at Reading in England," says Valensi.

And now that the Strokes are in the midst of their first headlining tour of the U.S., it's time to take care of business at home and share a little piece of the Big Apple with the heartland.

"Besides," says Valensi, "it's too hard to play outside. No walls, no ceilings -- that's not very rock 'n' roll, ya know?"

The Strokes play Fri., Oct. 26, at the Cotton Club, 152 Luckie St. Show time 10 p.m. $10. Moldy Peaches open. 404-688-1193. www.atlantaconcerts.com.

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