Albert Hammond Jr.
Francis Trouble (Red Bull)
It seemed the Strokes had already endured the breathless-hype-into-vicious-backlash cycle even before its debut full-length, Is This It, dropped in 2001. The band’s momentum, attitude and simply perfectly simple songwriting blew through that milestone with authority. But since then, the band’s output has been overshadowed by whatever context was afoot: the challenge of making a second album; the challenge of bouncing back from its disappointment; the challenges of shifting gears, managing substance abuse, enduring Ryan Adams’ noxious presence, resolving internecine struggles, and living up to that debut, which looked even more epochal in retrospect. On the new albums, The Voidz (featuring vocalist Julian Casablancas) and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. try two divergent approaches.
After a Strokes-y lead-off track, The Voidz take the exploding-album route, brewing up such a god-awful mess it almost sounds like a cry for help. “QYURRYUS” becomes a grating carnival twirling with Auto-Tuned, faux-Euro vocals; “Pyramid of Bones” is nervous, druggy, paranoid garbage; the acoustic “Think Before You Drink” is an erstwhile tender ballad nullified by JC’s piss-take crooning; “All Wordz Are Made Up” sounds like The Knife reincarnated as obnoxious Americans. Virtue works best in the rare quiet moments – such as the first half of the closing “Pointlessness,” a Wendy Carlos-ish synth pastorale—and worst pretty much everywhere else.
Francis Trouble is ostensibly a concept album about Hammond’s stillborn twin, but this is underplayed, which is fine. If Casablancas blows up the machine and dares you to watch, Hammond goes back to the classic Strokes playbook—which seems cheap, but then the Strokes playbook always seemed cheap, albeit imbued. It actually seems bravely futile, trying to recreate something great you did so long ago, conscious that everyone’s watching you try. But there goes Hoffman, profitably attacking eighth notes on his guitar over a taut rhythm section, and riding into the sunset. In particular, “Far Away Truths” would have been great for kids to jam on their way to the mall, back when they went to malls. (It’s on the wrong side of the three-minute mark, but oh well.) The Strokes made one great garage revival record and spent the rest of its career trying to make a decent modern rock album. This is it.
Hippo Lite (Drag City)
A couple years ago, Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley released Hermits on Holiday, their first album as Drinks. It hurt my ears, and I wished these two effortlessly fine purveyors of quirk would ease up on the flat, sullen bashiness and get out the crayons. Which, amazingly, is exactly what Hippo Lite sounds like—mostly acoustic, handmade, actually invoking hermits on holiday making up songs while staying in their cabin (and evidently, the album was indeed recorded during a month spent in a WiFi-free mill in southern France). There are sweetly strange instrumentals like “IF IT” and gently punky numbers like the lead single “Real Outside.” Every once in a while there’s a horn, a fiddle or a piano, all sounding like they just happened to be around. And, almost as afterthoughts, there’s Presley’s silly-smug voice and Le Bon’s candidly weird voice (on “Leave the Lights On,” they form a two-headed Syd Barrett). Hippo Lite will not headline anyone’s party playlist (if it does, do not attend that party), but for inspired, constructive puttering around the house, you can’t do much better.