The Strokes' rhythm guitarist shoots further into the alt-rock mainstream on his sophomore album.
After listening repeatedly to Albert Hammond, Jr.'s debut album, Yours to Keep, I wished for a slight twist on the well-worked-out formula of light and almost-disposable nostalgia pop. Though that initial assessment concluded with talk of "fodder for commercial radio and teenage Valentine's mixes," returning to the 2007 album is still a surprising pleasure. Maybe I'm in a nostalgic mood or something, but "101" comes on and synapses fire like crazy: once again, you're cruising in a convertible with the sun setting on your right hand side. Then again, it was only a little over a year ago that that album was released, and it already seems far in the past.
In keeping with his populist outlook, Hammond's new website, released in conjunction with ¿Cómo Te Llama?, seems to be a sort of visual map of friends of his, or people who've helped with the album, perhaps. It looks like one of those friend map applications from Facebook, but some of the photos are hyperlinked, so you can get lost in personal websites, blogs, and MySpace pages. The message here may just be one of vague hipster love-in, but it's a momentary diversion, and that seems to be marketing, er, 101 circa 2008.
When it comes to the music itself, Hammond's made some more substantial changes than a prettied-up conceptual marketing campaign. In fact, the album's sound is so far apart from the debut that it's only the songwriter's good-natured approach that clues you in that this is an Albert Hammond, Jr. release. That, and the fact that Hammond's melodies tend to cluster around similar small phrases, patched together in new ways to create slightly different melodies. Despite the fact that the instrumentation on ¿Cómo Te Llama? is much more conventional rock band (guitar, drums, keyboard, bass) and that Hammond uses familiar tricks like vocorder-laced vocals, these songs doesn't emerge sounding particularly Strokes-like. You get the feeling this is something Hammond has worked hard to achieve.
The best material on ¿Cómo Te Llama? marries the artist's already-established breezy, mid-tempo alt-rock with a more muscular instrumentation. If Yours to Keep was all children's memories and first loves, these new tracks are Hammond post-becoming-a-man. They are more subtle and far less innocent. Without huge hooks or immediately singable choruses, you do have to work a bit harder, but that's OK -- the emphasis here is on craft and clean structure. The first single, "GfC", may be the only song with a true pop hook -- the kind that quickly pops out of the texture of the song -- and even that one is unlikely to be a radio hit. Still, it has a way of worming into your head. Hammond relaxes, too, once or twice, reminding the listener that he's still down with wistful nostalgia. The centrepiece here is "Spooky Couch", a seven minute long instrumental interlude, which you reach the end of not quite knowing where the time went, but not minding much either.
Elsewhere, Hammond demonstrates his comfort going darker and dirtier."Rocket" has a cutting bite, mining its simple melody for all it's worth with each pointed repetition. Even better is "Victory at Monterey" -- the syncopated, energetic rendering of the title becomes one of those successful, addictive pop song phrases. This alt-rock milieu, in its more straightforward incarnations, occasionally recalls a band like Weezer. You suspect Hammond's going to be better received than The Red Album (well, that shouldn't be difficult), but the point is this reception's expectation-linked: we expect easygoing 4/4 rock from Hammond now, and despite the dirtier textures, the MO's basically similar.
So ¿Cómo Te Llama? changes a bit and retains a bit. Overall it's a solid sophomore effort, and certainly good enough to tide Strokes fans over until that band's next release. But in his own right, Albert Hammond, Jr is becoming a songwriter worth taking notice of. There's no doubt he'll be sticking around, that he has some even better material to come. But as to whether, a year from now, ¿Cómo Te Llama? will have the same sweet nostalgic feel that Yours to Keep has today, I'm not quite as convinced. We'll see.