By Albert Hammond Jr
It has been 5 years since Albert Hammond Jr released ¿Cómo Te Llama?, the follow up to his 2006 solo album Yours To Keep. Involved in various projects over that course of time, he has kept himself busy. But then again, with such an impressive mix of musical collaborations, his own men's clothing line and two further albums with The Strokes, he ain't the kind of guy to shy away from "doing".
So it seemed a little strange that he waited until now to bring out, not an album, but AHJ; a 5 track EP. Why? Surely it would make sense to wait until the usual amounts of tracks are ready to be put on an album, especially if you're investing in a tour and especially if your fans are investing in seeing you on said tour?
And then, you listen to it. And you listen to it again. And suddenly it makes sense. In fact it makes so much sense that you forget what an album is. This EP holds together so much more than an LP could have in this case, and a huge part is due to the intimate nature of the work produced. Sod albums. The two words that continually float before my mind's eye when listening or thinking of AHJ stay the same: layered simplicity.
It's actually such a simple description, that it's no wonder it took time noticing it. In this new era of studios and fantastic equipment at the hands of artists that wish to experiment and create synthetic and (often wonderful) diverse sounds in the search of the "next new thing" (such as the wonderful AM by The Arctic Monkeys), we forget something - meaning and confidence in what is being sung about. Instruments. Singing. AHJ is a record oozing humanity but one that is not in total denial about what the studio can contribute.
As you listen to the 5 tracks that flow from the deep, brave bass filled, heavy drumming introduction intertwined with the soft, questioning vocals of St. Justice to the mumbling, fast paced finish of Cooker Ship, it's as though a 15 minute wave of simple, stripped back, good music cascades down through and out of the speakers, filling your brain with a refreshing, smile inducing effect.
The wide-eyed awe that listening to White Blood Cells for the first time as a teenager is recaptured with AHJ. Don't go into this thinking it is as raw as the White Stripes album, they're two separate beasts sharing a similar result. No, instead AHJ shows the beauty of relying on little more than honest lyrics, honest performance and a great ear for creating that near perfect atmosphere each and every time.
Hammond's songs cover the positives and negatives, the ups and downs. Tonally these songs suggest a life lived with a committed matter of fact lilt. But it is a tone that stops short of being too much like the isolating, looped thought processes one falls into when in a rut or on a bad trip. Rather the songs embrace this sensation as a starting point before transcending it to become a refreshing statement of experience, people and lessons learned.
In doing so, even the darkest of images of self-destruction and loneliness, such as Cooker Ship, have the jaunty feel that is so hand in glove with what Hammond produces time and time again. Each song rolls into the next, neither out of place or forced, yet merging to forge a complete sound of an unpretentious, interesting work. Yet, importantly, each track maintains its individuality. Nothing is lost in transition of one song to the next - not even on shuffle (I've tried). It compliments itself. It actually compliments his previous two albums (yes, even on shuffle).
It's simple. Repetition is embraced; there is an innocent enjoyment of letting the riffs and layers build and continue as he sings through, over, under and above. A quiet assurance surrounds the tracks, one that silently states that there is no room for frills and flourishes in what he is singing about. It's too important, too personal. Yet whenever it gets a little too low, the guitar interlaces fast woven solos to take any (self) pity from the mood. It's vague. You have an idea as to what the song is about, but not who, where and when and that makes it so much more accessible for the listener: to get caught up in your own thoughts and memories that the songs place in your mind. It's a listening EP and because of that, it's all the more memorable.
And then there is the "layered" aspect and the specific importance it offers to the compilation as a whole. Upon the first couple of listens, I was pulled back into a nostalgic time of Lennon and Nilsson - of their voices being used to back their own songs, to add texture and velvet. I was back to a prominent sound that made up the feel of the 70s. It's a joy to hear again, in the right, subtle context that seems to have dispersed over changing times, Strange Tidings being the best example of this.
In keeping with the softly placed vocals, as each instrument is added, so is the importance and focus of that single contribution emphasised as they're carefully locked, one on top of the other with little to no discrimination that in turn gives a soft balance and full body to the tracks. A body that has the simplicity and layering of when music was first recorded: the same room, the same time, together as one. And that's true to an extent here, Albert having recorded everything himself apart from drums on a couple of tracks, albeit with the added luxury of today's studios and without the feeling that it was done for any other reason than because it just sounds right.
His voice maintains the character known throughout his career whilst a growing warmth and confidence in his execution allows him to stretch and mature and, in turn, gives added sincerity to his story, making it feel as though you have listened to more than just a handful of tracks.
Yet, with the nostalgia and influences that shine through, there is no fraudulent feel to the music. You don't hear The Strokes, you're not listening to them. Rather you catch hints of what was and continues to be brought to the band by Albert Hammond Jr as an individual. You hear the love of music and different artists, his own collaborative and solo work alongside others' styles and pacing, rather than their voice or knock off chords. You hear a tentative test as to not only the public and critical reaction to his work, but his own. It's not self conscious or worrisome. Rather, it relies on the ageless experiences being enjoyed, weathered and shared.
We, the listener, are deftly confided in, but only just enough to feel special. Hammond shares as much as he is willing to share without crossing the line. It's not too dissimilar to listening into a conversation at a table across the room or reading a letter meant for another's lover. Just as Scared on Yours To Keep had it's whisper of a chorus over the broken record, Rude Customer picks up a confident yet vague situation that drifts in and out of interpretation. Nothing is rushed. Nothing is overworked. We are given just 5 tracks that offer an approachable, unflinching and honest stream of consciousness, whilst communicating a personal and private memory that contains insight for both the performer and the audience alike.