I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, and countless times, more than I care to remember, I’ve paid the price for it. I’ve never been able to play it cool, to keep inside the things that I should, or to simply let things be. In my role as a music critic, these are assets, but in love, it’s like wearing a big neon sign around my neck that says `Needy and Scary.’ That said, I don’t think I’d ever try to change myself. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of the Strokes (let the pummeling begin), but I’ve now found a sympathetic similarity in their rhythm guitarist, Albert Hammond, Jr. He of the stylish `fro and white Stratocaster is getting a stateside release to his first solo album, originally put out in the UK in October of last year. Yours to Keep, named after a song by Guided by Voices, is a delicate pop affair, replete with infectious melodies, the kind of emotion that probably gets Hammond in as much trouble as me, and a whole mess of friends to help out along the way.
Toy piano and gentle harmonic backing vocals highlight the introductory song, “Cartoon Music for Superheroes,” as if Brian Wilson were jamming with Jeff Mangum. The signature Hammond guitars appear in second song, “In Transit,” a track that was originally written for the Strokes as “Obstinate.” This is where Hammond’s lyrics began to break their way into my psyche, with lines like, “Free from it all / I’m not gonna change `til I want to.” and “By the way she looked, I should have calmed down / I went too far, that’s all I got to say.” The sunny feel of the melodies nicely juxtapose the regret within the lyrics.
“Blue Skies” is the one song on this album of good songs that really took my breath away. Hammond’s voice is scratchy and lain bare to the world, singing his tales of lost love, much like John Lennon over a lone acoustic guitar. I couldn’t help but connect with the raw emotion as he sings, “It’s been years since I saw you, but everyday I see your face / and in time, you will remind me, that I wish we were the same.” Few people can write songs with this kind of immediate power, in such a sparse format, but Hammond proves there’s more than one capable songwriter in the Strokes.
“101” is the hooky first single from the album, referencing my old stomping grounds, the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles. It’s such a complete pop single that it’s difficult to find fault in any part of it. It has everything from brilliantly beautiful background vocals and piano (performed ably by Sean Lennon of all people) to a chorus that you’d swear you’d heard somewhere before, but just couldn’t put your finger on. One of the best choruses of the album appears in the bouncy “Call an Ambulance,” another heartbreaking tale, but this time backed by a ukulele.
Other highlights appear in “Scared” and “Holiday” with guitar work that is arguably some of Hammond’s best, though I’m sure I’d have some arguments to deal with. Hammond’s best vocal turn arrives in the album’s proper closer (there are two bonus tracks on the US and Canadian version for good measure), “Hard to Live in the City.” Albert’s voice is in perfect pitch with his guitar playing, straining with a gritty texture in all the right places, filled with yearning that complements the lyrics. There’s even a fun horn section in the last minute and a half! One of the bonus tracks is the electrifying “Postal Blowfish,” another nod to one of the greatest indie bands of all time, Guided by Voices. The other is “Well…All Right,” a cover of a great Buddy Holly song, whose guitar pose Hammond has been known to use.
After a recent break-up, I suppose it’s natural to feel lost, and to reach out to friends for comfort. That’s what I’ve done, and some of it worked out for me, while other attempts have turned out to be disastrous. And although Albert Hammond, Jr. hasn’t officially `divorced’ the Strokes, his first foray out on his own has only borne rich fruit. I will try to take a cue from this talented guitarist, not worrying about how I feel, but turning those nagging thoughts into something meaningful, while also relying on your friends. Yours to Keep was more than a pleasant surprise for me. If I had heard something that was too similar to his band, I probably would have been a little pissed. Instead, Hammond has created an album of refreshing pop songs, at its best recalling the Beatles and Beach Boys, and at its worst breaking new ground of emotional pop, and that’s not bad at all. Hey Al, thanks for helping me get my groove back!