By Matthew Treon
Out of all the members of The Strokes, Albert Hammond Jr. makes the most interesting and exciting non-Strokes music. And his new EP, titled AHJ, is full of the signature characteristics of Hammond’s sound — bass work dominated by eighth notes, doubled guitar lines with sliding harmonies, light synth work, and all of it nestled in straight beats played on heavy-gated drums — but there’s something new here on AHJ, a new sense of control. Hammond’s playing has always been dialed and precise, even (and especially) in its most carefully-crafted nonchalant moments. But skills aside, the new sense of restraint here is moving away from the manic playfulness that permeated Hammond’s last album. At points in the new material the sonic results of that playfulness is missed, no doubt, but the control on AHJ is rewarding in the way that it translates to a sound of confidence in Hammond as the leader of his own band.
“I really like putting myself in the crossfire of it all,” Hammond said in a recent interview with The Marquee. “It always starts with, ‘Fuck, this is so exciting for me,’ hearing a cool part, thinking it’s better than anything I’ve ever done. And then suddenly I’m going to play shows.” Along with the extensive set of dates Hammond has lined up touring for AHJ, he’s already hit the “Late Show with David Letterman” — a stage The Strokes have performed on several times, but it was the first time Hammond hit it rocking his guitar and the mic himself. “It’s always different,” Hammond said. “Just because you played ‘Letterman’ with a band doesn’t mean he’ll give it to you when you come to do your own thing, you know? And so I was actually quite surprised, and it was really exciting. It wasn’t like an old hat. It was raw and intense and wonderful.” Which could serve as a spot-on description of AHJ—raw, intense, wonderful.
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Hammond recorded AHJ in his N.Y.C. apartment and his home studio in upstate New York, and he’s releasing the EP on Julian Casablancas’ new label Cult Records. “I’ve worked with [Julian] pretty much my entire adult life,” Hammond said. “But it feels like when we were younger, getting together when we were eighteen, when we used to just talk about music. Except now with all this experience. We’ve spent our entire career trying to always do things with friends. He’s starting something new and I’m starting something new, so we try and help each other out in any way we can. It just makes sense.”
And it does make sense, because it’s impossible to talk about Albert Hammond, Jr. without talking about The Strokes. The always-viewing-Hammond-as-one-of-The-Strokes thing is an interesting problem. “Alone, you not only have the band’s weight on you, but you don’t even have the band. So you’re dealing with weight you never asked for, and don’t even feel like it’s part of it. But you have to deal with it head-on. It’s weird to me when people sort of criticize, and say, ‘Oh, you sound like The Strokes.’ Because I’m like, ‘Yeah, I play guitar in The Strokes, of course it’s going to have similarities.’ But I feel like it’s always had enough differences to be its own thing. I mean, even if I made a jazz record, it would be jazz only in the way The Strokes could be. I feel like even if we have our own careers we’ll always be The Strokes,” he said.
But even with two of his own LPs already on shelves, with AHJ Hammond puts forth his own sound and musical personality more assertively than he has yet to do, as even the EP’s title stands testament to. With four tracks clocking in at just over twelve minutes, AHJ is a sharp, to-the-point release. It eases in with the drifty lead single “St. Justice,” then steps up the tempo and pop-drive with “Strange Tidings.” The third quarter kicks in with “Rude Customer,” which stands out as the scrappiest and most exciting track on the EP, then Hammond rounds it all out with the wailing “Cooker Ship,” a track that gives voice to Hammond’s past struggles with drug addiction.
This being Hammond’s first post-rehab solo work, it’s hard not to listen through that particularly focused recently-kicked-a-polytoxic-addiction lens. There seems to be contrition happening all throughout AHJ. In “Strange Tidings,” Hammond sings about a “self-inflicted nightmare” of which he confesses: “If I’m guilty I will pay.” On “St. Justice” he sings, “I got locked in myself and I don’t know what to do / There were dreams in my eyes that now don’t shine through.” But the promise that is such a talented musician and songwriter like Albert Hammond Jr. more than shines through.
AHJ presents a feeling of rebirth and responsibility and coming to terms with things. It makes a statement that says Hammond is purposefully next-leveling it in his career, and its songs instill hope that one of the most enjoyable musicians of the last decade-plus will continue to write and record great music. Hammond has played a large role in the lives of many music lovers, a role Hammond is aware but cautious of. “Only recently I’ve been able to take myself out of it and look back,” Hammond said. “And other people have played that role for me, and I remember early on wanting to do that. But to be honest, I don’t live in that thought. I don’t walk around wearing that coat. It does make me feel great when I hear about people feeling that way about the work I’ve done. But I don’t think about that all the time. It would make me a weird person, you know? I don’t know. I feel like it’s an intoxication that can be dangerous. Because I don’t feel like I’ve done that much yet. And I mean that in a very sincere way. I mean, I’ve done some cool stuff, yeah, but I feel like my bigger understanding of music and songwriting is still happening. I don’t feel like that’s done.”
:: Albert Hammond, Jr. ::
:: The Moon Room at Summit Hall ::
:: November 17 ::
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