Release Date: Jul 31, 2015
Record label: Vagrant
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
The Strokes have seemed like a spent creative force for close to a decade now, so it’s unlikely that many people in 2015 were hankering for another solo album from their rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. And yet, back in July, he released one of the year’s most enjoyable albums in the form of Momentary Masters. The album will win no prizes for originality, with everything here sounding at least a little bit like something else – that ‘something’ typically being The Strokes.
Albert Hammond, Jr.'s solo career has evolved over the years, moving from the almost accidental brilliance of Yours to Keep to the sharp focus of the AHJ EP. Momentary Masters is his finest work since his debut, albeit for very different reasons; here, Hammond, Jr. builds on AHJ's clarity in ways that feel equally deliberate and fresh. As on that EP, he reunites with producer Gus Oberg and riffs on the sound he made famous with the Strokes: "Losing Touch" is a piece of irresistible new wave guitar pop that would be a standout with his other band, while "Born Slippy" (not a cover of the Underworld classic) chugs along on spring-loaded riffs and surprisingly graceful melodies.
As The Strokes approach their "heritage period," where new material is received with a brief smile and an open gateway to touring, Albert Hammond Jr. finally appears to be making his own headway into a genuine solo career. Momentary Masters significantly benefits from producer Gus Oberg concocting an unhurried and loose atmosphere throughout its 10 tracks, with Hammond Jr.'s colourful and textured guitar lines splintering kaleidoscopically through waves of keyboard and fuzz-edged bass lines.
Unlike so many instantly iconic rock phenomena before them, the Strokes didn’t so much turn boring as frustrating. From 2006’s First Impressions of Earth onward, they’ve sounded like a band constantly second-guessing itself—one that knows it has to evolve beyond a signature sound, but unwilling to commit to a direction. That erratic behavior has extended to frontman Julian Casablancas’ sideline pursuits, whether it as a Daft Punk-approved synth-pop singer or polarizing prog-punk provocateur.
For those who saw The Strokes as a kind of exquisitely realised indie-rock boyband, Albert Hammond Jr. was the badass: the one who knew a hundred ways to open a bottle of beer, none of which involved a bottle opener; who knew how to match a suit to a skinny tie; the kind of guy who’d light a cigarette just to let it burn like an incense stick in the neck of his guitar.The 35 year old’s music, however, has always revealed a more thoughtful, sensitive soul. Hammond’s third solo album takes its title from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, a book about mankind’s place in the universe and our potential to transcend it, while thematically, he’s been talking up the influence of the confessional poet Anne Sexton on his lyric writing.
Here’s the deal with solo albums from cogs in quality bands: it seems easy for them to not be so great. A guitarist is supremely prone to setting out on their own and falling into the trap of trying to distance themselves too much from their primary gig, churning out 40 minutes of overly experimental nonsense, seemingly just to prove the inconsequential point that they have multiple skills. It’s when the artist doesn’t depart from their band’s aesthetic too much that they stand to see the most success, with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel being strong examples from this decade.
Albert Hammond Jr’s 2006 solo debut, Yours to Keep, was a welcome surprise, in part because it sounded so different to his day job as guitarist for the Strokes, coming across like a lo-fi Beach Boys. His third album is less distinctive, but no less enjoyable for it. There are several nods to key artists that influenced the New York five-piece: Losing Touch starts up like the Cars; the guitar flourishes on Born Slippy are surely a deliberate echo of Television’s Marquee Moon.
While Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas uses his time outside the band to pursue his artier impulses, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. packs his third solo disc with the band's signature crisp melodies, curt guitar churn and New Wave synth ripple. As a singer and lyricist, though, Hammond has an openhearted, somewhat quizzical mien that's a far cry from the Strokes' poker-faced chic ("Put your ego aside," he advises on "Losing Touch").
As guitarist and keyboardist for The Strokes, Albert Hammond Jr. is an accomplished pacemaker. He measures the pulse of his band, holding up melodic lines with patterns carefully perched between protruding bass, lead guitar, and tethering vocals. His work as part of the unit is mostly complementary, as he builds the backbone for the strutting chords that make the band’s pop-leaning tunes so memorable.
Being in The Strokes must be stressful. Even though 14 years have passed since Is This It sparked all that talk about the New York City quintet saving its city and rock ’n’ roll, some of the hype, backlash, and expectations linger. Julian Casablancas and company are no longer leather-clad scruffball messiahs, but each new record or tour feels like an event.