Album Review: Albert Hammond Jr. – Francis Trouble

It seems impossible to discuss Albert Hammond Jr. without mentioning his association with The Strokes. It’s worth bearing in mind however that new record Francis Trouble is the Californian’s fourth – only one less than the New York outfit have managed since their inception in 2001. When asked about a new Strokes record last year, AHJ stated on Twitter that even a theoretical album plan would be years away, if at all.’ Bearing this in mind, could we possibly talk about Albert Hammond Jr. without mentioning you know who?

Francis Trouble - Albert Hammond Jr. artwork

Previous records certainly possessed a distinctive Strokes sound about them. Check out ‘In Transit” from debut record Yours to Keep as a case in point. Incredibly catchy, but in that guitar driven melody there’s something just a little too familiar. Delve a little deeper however and you’ll find evidence that AHJ is no one trick pony. Experiments in electronica as well as punk and ska, along with a propensity for unexpected tempo shifts and multi-layered structures (plus an album inspired by Carl Sagan) have all contributed to an incredibly satisfying and individual body of work. Francis Trouble is a worthy addition to this oeuvre.

The record is inspired by the birth of his stillborn twin brother, Francis. Albert remained undetected in his mother’s womb for six months and 36 years later he was informed that one of Francis’ finger nails was born with him. The record is therefore a deliberation on the impact of these events on his personality and his creativity – not that you’d necessarily know it. The record’s first track ‘DvsL’ opens to pleasant birdsong before tumbling down a New York punk-shaped rabbit hole, echoing with Iggy Pop styled vocals. As if to preempt a potentially confused response, AHJ stated in a press release that ‘what the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analyzed or taken too seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a character, a parody of itself. The music is the mask the message wears and I, the performer, am the message.’ And this pretty much sums up what follows. Lead single ‘Far Away Truths’ is perhaps closest in form to that other band. Built around driving bass lines and lacerating guitar riffs, the song is as thrilling as it is catchy. ‘Muted Beatings’ maintains the high tempo and driving rhythms along with assured vocals and distinctive harmonies.

This opening salvo is perhaps the most orthodox aspect of the record; the mood changes with the more considered and reflectiveSet to Attack’, which allows particular influences to morph into a more refined, European sound. In moments like this, the brashness dissipates, replaced by a sincerity that seems genuine as the guitar solo emerges, rough, jagged and full of emotion. ‘Tea for Two’ is an ominous march full of dark, jazzy layers that don’t seem to work on first listen, but persevere with these dramatic, creative shifts because they’re ultimately a rewarding demonstration of this artist’s willingness to take risks.  

As if to emphasise the point, the second half of the record goes down a very different path. ‘Stop and Go”s pop sensibility is married to a jazz-funk beat and it’s an interesting if not entirely successful attempt to resurrect the Bowie-esque glam rocker. ‘ScreaMER’ is more successful, if a little generic, glam number with AHJ in full on Mick Jagger mode. Raucous, energetic and brash, it is still a rocking delight. The smooth synths of ‘Rockys Late Night’ calm the creases left behind by the previous track. The cool, dark and seductive intro is deceptive though, as a funky disco melody and nonchalant vocals emerge to provide a more contemplative tone. It’s an unexpected and unpredictable joy with a sweeping, downbeat conclusion, allowing final track ‘Harder, Harder, Harder’ to end where we started. It’s probably the weakest song on the album, but don’t let that put you off – almost everything that goes before is thrilling evidence that the guitar album is alive and kicking in Albert Hammond Jr’s. hands.