Remember the Strokes? The group that kicked-started “rock” again probably hasn’t totally completed its journey into irrelevance, but taking the bull by its metaphorical horns, the band’s lead rhythm guitarist is already forging his own, albeit still Strokes-esque, path. Is it a sign of things to come?
Albert Hammond, Jr.‘s the funky Stroke, the one with the hair. Doesn’t help? He’s the one who always wears the three-piece suits with the thin black ties. Plays the rhythm guitar. Solos less than the other guy, Valensi, but does workman-like duties on “Last Nite”, “Take It or Leave It”, “Under Control”, and a few others. Turns out he grew up in Southern California, so I guess he’s the laid-back one too. Who knows, maybe he plays Seth Cohen to Julian Casablancas’ Volcek in Strokes rehearsals. It’s no surprise this (presumably) more laid-back upbringing informs Hammond’s music much more than in his day job, where Casablancas drives most of the creative process. So Yours to Keep fuels the fire of cliché, a solo album with a hint of main band-influence and a firmly one-dimensional extra point-of-view. The album’s appealing and relaxed, easy-to-digest to a fault; the most memorable thing about this one’s its’ atmosphere.
The guitarist has gathered some recognizable names to help him on Yours to Keep, and it’s to the album’s credit that you can never really identify their characteristic voices -– Sean Lennon, Julian Casablancas, Ben Kweller—that they never alter the overarching tenor of the disc. Rather, Hammond’s songs are strong enough to carry their own weight.
And a number of these really stand out. “101” is an ode to Cali’s most endearing highway, but shines because it’s Yours to Keep‘s most fully realized song: the guitars chime and clang in more a conventional, and conventionally pleasing power-pop mode. “In Transit” shows Hammond in more familiar Strokes territory, but the easy guitar riff is reinforced from above with treble arpeggios (rather than basing the whole song on those high sounds). And “Scared” would certainly have made First Impressions of Earth stronger, with different instrumentation but a Strokes-esque construction -– complimenting, equally strong chugging riff/sweet refrain.
Hammond’s also got a little bit of this child-centred twee thing going, too. Opener “Cartoon Music For Superheroes” sets off on that foot, a sweet lullaby built off simple arpeggios and a dreams-are-real attempt to capture childlike wonder and innocence. Hammond’s smoky, thin-ish voice is suited to this, just fine, actually. Later, “Call an Ambulance” brings the twee to the fore, reminding of a less whiney Boy Least Likely To, with its marching-rhythm and toy guitar accompaniment.
The trouble is, despite these highlights, quickly a formula is developed that carries the listener through some fairly ordinary, if pleasant enough, material. By the third son, “Everyone Gets a Star”, we’re beginning to understand its’ outlines: undeniably sweet, simple pop-rock, fueled by treble guitar arpeggios and Hammond’s smooth, not-too-distinctive voice. You could hear any number of these songs on the radio and think, That’s a nice song, who sings that? Though if you heard “Bright Young Things”, you’d think instead –- wait, isn’t that that famous song by the Beach Boys? Hammond can only knowingly be borrowing from Brian Wilson’s famous line on “God Only Knows”, and then a moment later from the riff of the stroke’s own “It This It” turned saccharine-sweet, banjo-sweet, calypso-sweet. Which makes it all charming, sure, but where do you draw the line?
In the end, you’re left yearning for just a slight twist of the formula, some little subversion that indicates to the listener Hammond knows this is disposable, knows that he’s providing fodder for commercial radio and teenage Valentine’s mixes. Yours to Keep may be consistently enjoyable, and eminently listenable, but it’s no Is This It.