February 22, 2007

Stroke Sheds Light on Solo Talent

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The Strokes are a five-piece band, but sometimes we forget that. The dispassionate, destructive and often drunk Julian Casablancas absorbs all of the attention and accolades showered on the quintet. He also absorbs the credit for much of the innovation behind the band’s sound and most all of their song writing.

If you whip out your magnifying glass though, and take out a copy of the band’s sophomore album, Room On Fire, you’ll observe that afro-tufted Albert Hammond Jr., half of the band’s guitar shredding tag team, co-wrote five songs, including all three singles (“Reptilia,” “12:51” and “The End Has No End”) — even penning a pretty little ditty called “Automatic Stop” all on his own. It’s about time Hammond Jr. emerged in the spotlight — from behind the three piece suit he wears at every Stokes appearance — to exhibit his chops without help from the cavalier Casablancas. Hammond Jr.’s first solo release, Yours To Keep pleasantly drifts from song to song, displaying the influence that Hammond exerts over his main project, and the talent that he
holds back for his own endeavors.

Ever the aficionado of counter-intuition, Hammond Jr. opens his album with a lullaby, the brilliantly titled, “Cartoon Music for Superheroes.” Not one ounce of Strokes-ness can be gleaned from this track, but as soon as the prelude starts, it’s over with “In Transit.”

The dual guitars, with a strange likeness to ’80s video game noises, prevail on track the second track, as do the simple and rhythmically constant drums. This song could have come right off of The Strokes’ Room on Fire, except that Hammond’s vocals undercut this initial impression quite handily. Hammond wrote this song, the following song and “Bright Young Thing” with the intention of being The Strokes songs for the tour video “In Transit.” But when he added his vocals to the songs, he decided to save them for his own project.

One expects to hear the indecipherably uncaring but emotionally present vocals of one Julian Casablancas on songs like these, but when Hammond starts singing in the higher register, he takes control and demands the spotlight. “Everyone Gets a Star,” likewise, sounds Stroke-like, but once Hammond reluctantly decides to push his vocal style to the forefront in the chorus, as opposed to the first verse when he lets disinterested Casablancas style reign, we see why Hammond wanted to have his own project in the first place.

“Call an Ambulance” sounds like a courtship ritual put to music in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. This, contrary to what you may think, works on the album. With this track, Hammond introduces a new direction for the distinct sound he maintains from his main project.

“Blue Skies” employs an acoustic guitar, banishing any Strokes evocation, but once the chorus comes, the words “don’t let me know” sounds extraordinarily eerily like John Lennon’s vocals on the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” Five out of five dentists agree.

I guess that answers the question: “What happens to a Stroke when you take away his Fender Stratocaster?” Interestingly enough, Beatles’ offspring Sean Lennon contributes to Yours to Keep, as do Ben Kweller, Julian Casablancas, Sammy James Jr. (of the Mooney Suzuki), the Strokes’ manager Ryan Gentles and many others of Hammond’s friends.

The album’s second single, “Back to the 101” traces Hammond to his roots as the sole Stroke not belonging in the category of “New York City Prep School Brat.” In fact, Hammond spent many of his formative years in the land his father, the unsurprisingly named Albert Hammond Sr. The video for this track follows a dead Hammond traversing the Los Angeles area where he was born and raised.

“Bright Young Thing” is the jaunty little romp on the record, complete with acoustic guitars, a banjo and even whistling. The track “Scared” shuffles with its verses and swirls in its chorus. These two are the least Strokes-y, although in his New York live performance dates, Casablancas joined in on “Scared” on the bass. “Holiday” brings the big picture back into perspective, guitars bring the trademark sound back, and the title reminds us that Hammond Jr. is only on vacation from the main focus, the Strokes.
Unfortunately, the album does not finish as promisingly as it begins, ending with “Hard to Live in the City.” The longest track is also the blandest, though it ends with an oddly placed ska-riachi horn arrangement.

Overall, the album is a solid effort. Some tracks fly and others saunter; none break any new musical ground, but they do showcase the talents of the Strokes’ lesser exhibited songwriter. Many attribute much of that band’s unique style to the guitar heroics of Hammond Jr., and he gets to show the difference in the subtraction equation of Strokes minus Moretti, Casablancas, Valensi, and Fraiture. Yours to Keep is a keeper for sure.