Britain’s Arctic Monkeys resemble New York garage-rockers the Strokes insofar as both bands originated as underground, indie acts, and each was absurdly overhyped by the British music press. The youthful Arctic Monkeys are still riding the high tide of notoriety: they’re currently touring in support of their sophomore album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, which is, sadly, a sophomoric effort compared to their formidable debut.
The same hype machine came with the Strokes’ 2001 debut, Is This It: as an album, it was equally overrated but turned out to be a quasi-masterpiece nevertheless. Time will surely tell what ongoing viability the Monkeys have, but while the verdict isn’t in on their fate, the jury may already be back on the Strokes: it seems they could be nearing the conclusion of their brief, if refreshing, reign. The band’s last album, First Impressions of Earth, did well, and they toured extensively in support of it. But the group is now on an indefinite hiatus, and rumors are circulating that it may in fact be over.
While the band is on hiatus, its gaunt, Afro-headed rhythm (and occasional lead) guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr., has released a solo album, Yours to Keep. He’s the first from the band to go the lonely road, and has been on tour since the record’s release. The album has received reviews both favorable and moderate, but its reception has proven one thing: to the extent that Hammond represents his band, the Strokes are still a strong and popular act, however overrated they may be.
While Hammond seems content to be his own person tonight, he’s still a Stroke, and one expects a Stroke to act accordingly (in other words, like a colossal rock star). He does not. Performing at Kansas City’s modest RecordBar, Hammond’s demeanor suggests that he’s not all that enthralled by limelight and adulation. And for what it’s worth, his songs, too, only vaguely resemble those of the band from whence he came. Where the Strokes’ singer, Julian Casablancas, swaggers about, wears a leather jacket, and sings in a false drunken stupor, Hammond remains discreet and firm, projecting a sense of discipline. He even seems, dare I say, bashful.
Hammond’s songs are dreamier and more delicate than those of the Strokes, and they tend to highlight mood and crisp, clear vocals. Only his catchiest songs could theoretically appear on a Strokes album, and these songs were purportedly rejected by the band. Where the Strokes channel the Doors (especially in “Reptilia”), the Ramones, and the Velvet Underground, Hammond’s significant influences include the music of John Lennon, Buddy Holly, and miscellaneous California sun-drenched balladeers (he did grow up in LA, after all).
Though he shows up on stage about two hours late, the enthusiastic crowd doesn’t mind—more time to drink. On this date at least, Hammond has foregone his usual dapper suit in favor of a dark, well-worn shirt, and tight, tattered jeans. No rock star pretensions or antics here—just a man with some songs to sing. The antics are left to a RecordBar employee who feels inclined to mockingly dress like a pretty little Paris Hilton jailbird, ponytail, open navel, and all.
This is Hammond’s second time showcasing his solo work in Kansas City. Opening with his album’s first single, “Everyone Gets a Star” (“These guys have all got problems”), probably the most Strokes-like song, Hammond appropriately states, “Good morning.” He holds his guitar like Buddy Holly or John Lennon, and dances ever so slightly, but with no small energy, as he plays the chords to the silent chorus. He concentrates on the vocals and leaves a good deal of the guitar work to his band (he tours with four other skillful musicians). His tangible emphasis on vocals becomes more evident in his second song, “In Transit,” and his facial muscles noticeably vary as he manipulates his voice.
This m.o. is followed for most of the night, save for a few songs. “Star” and two or three others—including second single “101” and a truly impressive, grungy cover of Guided By Voices’ “Postal Blowfish”—win the crowd’s adoration. He plays two more covers during the evening—an enigmatic Cars song and Frank Black’s “Old Black Dawning”—and two new tunes that sound considerably heavier than his largely mellow, pop-rockers. He drops most of the cuts from his debut, with the exception of the album’s introductory set-piece throwaway “Cartoon Music For Superheroes.” The real treat tonight is the pristine live sound of remarkably claustrophobic, Lennon-like songs such as “Blue Skies” and “Hard to Live in the City.”
Stroke or no, Albert Hammond, Jr.’s live show proves that he is talented and imaginative enough to forge ahead independently. If anything, his performance betrays a genuine concern for music over image and fortune—a different Stroke indeed.