With their third release, the Strokes aim to catch the zeitgeist of a 2001 debut that took the rock world by storm.

In 2001, the Strokes transcended the New York club scene in a flash. They became international rock stars, selling 1 million copies of their RCA debut "Is This It" in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The photogenic quintet were tagged poster boys for a much-ballyhooed new, energetic rock movement that included the Hives and the Vines, and later, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and the Killers.

But when the group offered up more of the same on 2003's "Room on Fire," sales suffered. The set has shifted 575,000 units to date domestically, and it raised the question were the Strokes a casualty of hype, or was it just the sophomore slump?

RCA is hoping to reverse gears as it preps a new Strokes album, "First Impressions of Earth," for an unusual Jan. 3 street date. The set has enjoyed strong prerelease buzz thanks to the single "Juicebox," which is No. 15 on Billboard's Modern Rock airplay chart, and its accompanying video, which stars comedian David Cross.

The label and band decided that on this go-round, time would be on their side: time to record without deadlines looming and time to properly set up the album at retail and radio, regardless of its release date.

"The first record was done quickly because we didn't know any better. It was our exact set list, in order," guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. recalls. "The second one, we were trying to get something different, but we didn't have the time.

"This one, we didn't want to do that again," he adds. "We said, 'Let's get our own equipment and just sit in the studio.' If it takes a month or two years, whatever."

At the urging of producer David Kahne, vocalist Julian Casablancas is clearly audible above the instruments for the first time, singing with previously unheard power on tracks like "Juicebox" and "Fear of Sleep." And while songs like "You Only Live Once" and the ultra-poppy "Razorblade" are classic Strokes, others are quite different than their predecessors.

"These songs have definitely pushed all of our abilities," Hammond says. "I felt like we had to find something that would make people listen to the songs more and not focus on the 'sound.' "

When it became clear that "First Impressions" would not be ready for the post-Thanksgiving retail rush, RCA decided to gamble with a Jan. 3 release. Further complicating the delay was that several new songs leaked to the Internet in the fall and spread like wildfire on music blogs.

While "Juicebox" racked up spins at home, the Strokes were busy playing impromptu club gigs all over the world, trying to recapture the word-of-mouth excitement that fueled the band's early explosion. A handful of similar shows are on tap for January in North America.

"This is not a band that would ever rest on their laurels," Strokes manager Ryan Gentles says. "If anything, I don't think we feel like we've accomplished anything special yet... Now it's time to really work hard."

With a dearth of other major releases this week, the album stands a good chance at debuting high on The Billboard 200. "We worked for so long on it," Gentles says, "so we want this to be the first big album to represent 2006."

"First Impressions" will also be available as a limited-edition Digipak featuring a host of cards that can be inserted to customize the cover, plus a 36-page booklet with lyrics and paintings.

The Strokes -- who also include guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti -- will begin 2006 with an extensive U.K. tour and a three-month North American run through late April. After summer European festival dates, the Strokes will return to North America.

Whether the album returns the Strokes to platinum status, Hammond says the band is thrilled with the finished product and excited to be back in front of audiences again. "We have three albums' worth of material, so we can play 24 songs and still have 15 songs left for an encore," he says. "We're rejuvenated."

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