The Strokes guitarist sets out alone and discovers his inner sweetness
No phrase can fill you with ominous dread of a band’s impending doom quite like ‘solo album’. As a general rule, these little distractions are a bad idea for any band. At best, they’re a trifling waste of time and money, at worst they become the kiss of death when your drummer decides that a career in jazz fusion awaits him. Yet, if there was one band you’d never expect to go in for side projects and the like, it was The Strokes. They’re a gang, always together, and the idea that they have songs to spare seems laughable ‘ they can scarcely muster up a B-side, let alone afford to toss away an entire album’s worth of songs.
Yet, here’s ‘Yours To Keep’ (dreadful title), guitarist Albert Hammond Jr’s first foray into the murky world outside his Strokes-shaped comfort zone. Certainly, he has the pedigree ‘ he co-wrote ‘Room On Fire’s ‘Automatic Stop’, as well as a number of instrumentals for tour film In Transit. And famously his father Albert Hammond made his fortune in the 1970s as a songwriter-for-hire, penning hits such as The Hollies’ ‘Air That I Breathe’. To his son’s credit, he’s augmented his basic band of bassist Josh Lattanzi and drummer Matt Romano with talented friends including Sean Lennon, Ben Kweller, The Mooney Suzuki’s Sammy James Jr, Julian Casablancas and even Strokes manager Ryan Gentles.
So is it actually any good? Much as it pains us to say this ‘ bearing in mind what it could mean for The Strokes’ future, despite strenuous denials about Hammond leaving the band ‘ the answer is yes, and surprisingly so. Hammond did himself no favours by modestly confessing to NME that the catalyst for this album was The Strokes’ rejection of his songs, but a number of them could have sat comfortably on his band’s last album.
Most people’s first experience of the album will have been the internet-only single, ‘Everyone Gets A Star’, one of only two or three truly Strokes-esque moments on the album. Powered along by a chugging new-wave riff and a nagging vocal melody, it sounds like a sleepier cousin of ‘Room On Fire’s ‘The End Has No End’. Better still is ‘Back To The 101’, built around a massive, Blondie-esque guitar hook and the kind of killer chorus that’s been missing on recent Strokes records. Listening to it, you can’t help but think that his employers’ loss is Hammond’s gain.
However, ‘Yours To Keep’ owes less to the drainpiped testosterone of the Ramones and the Velvets and more to the quirky indie songcraft of The Flaming Lips and The Magnetic Fields, even if it lacks the Lips’ cinematic scope. Hammond’s voice, a high-pitched nasal twang, might not have the drunken cool of Casablancas, but he’s at least decipherable, and, on occasion, heart-swooningly sweet. On ‘Call An Ambulance’, a sprightly, Beatles-y tale of unrequited love, he even engages in the kind of terminally uncool whistling that would normally see him strung up by his intestines and paraded through the streets as a punk-rock heretic.
Much of the album is like this, but that’s no bad thing. Take the gorgeous ‘Blue Skies’; a largely acoustic ramble through the sort of ‘70s songwriting classicism that allowed his father to pay for young Albert’s expensive schooling, it’s the last thing you’d expect the guitarist from The Strokes to write, but the surprise is a welcome one. The same goes for ‘Scared’, which starts out as a taut new wave rocker, before tripping over itself and falling into a psychedelic chorus, complete with swirling Beach Boys harmonies, without ever erring into tweeness.
If there’s a gripe, it’s that the album does feel somewhat slight. At 10 songs long, it’s hardly the beefiest record in the world, and it’s unfortunately bookended by filler: opener ‘Cartoon Music For Superheroes (Goodnight)’ is an organ-led mess-about that’s utterly forgettable while closer ‘Hard To Live (In The City)’ might have aspirations of epicness but actually feels laboured and overlong.
But let’s give the Brillo-haired one his due. This album is far better than it has any right to be; an intimate, frequently beautiful and consistently surprising record that gets better with every listen. It’s testament to Hammond’s talent that at no point during ‘Yours To Keep’ will you find yourself longing for Julian Casablancas’ brooding voice, or for a screeching Nick Valensi-esque solo to kick in. Suffice to say, if you take it at face value and don’t go looking for the fourth Strokes album, this is a record to fall in love with. If only the bloody title didn’t sound like something you’d find etched on the inside of a birthday card your granny gave you.