As guitarist and keyboardist for The Strokes, Albert Hammond Jr. is an accomplished pacemaker. He measures the pulse of his band, holding up melodic lines with patterns carefully perched between protruding bass, lead guitar, and tethering vocals. His work as part of the unit is mostly complementary, as he builds the backbone for the strutting chords that make the band’s pop-leaning tunes so memorable. The balance he ushers is most mesmerizing on Is This It, The Strokes’ debut, which happens to be the most important garage rock album of the 21st century and the lynchpin for everything else the band does, together or otherwise. The success of The Strokes sometimes frames Hammond’s solo work as an echo of their poppy bliss.
As a solo artist, Hammond maintains a safe distance from his band’s celebrity without actually committing to reinvention, making artsy mockups of Strokes songs with a careful, personal touch. He is an underrated writer and composer who often falls victim to the same Second Banana Syndrome that plagues all musicians sharing a stage with a great rock star — in this case, singer-songwriter Julian Casablancas. Hammond’s first album, Yours to Keep, received its share of “this guy writes songs, too?” head-turns, but underneath the penmanship was a craftsmanship indicative of a guitarist tired of layering harmonies, a musician looking to distance himself from a career generating rhythmic pulse by testing out riffs of varying tones and textures.
Hammond’s last solo album, 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama?, felt like his attempt to redefine himself as an artist (hence the name). It was just as lively and almost as interesting as Yours to Keep, but in his quest for distinction, his music ended up sounding more like Strokes B-sides than ever. That’s either a great compliment or an ego-shattering insult depending on how you look at it. Seven years later (and following two so-so Strokes albums and a solo EP, 2013’s AHJ), Hammond returns with Momentary Masters, his most colorful album yet. But despite its warm, engaging overtones, very little lies beneath the rumbling power pop riffs and the glossy pop rock veneer.
These days, it’s easier to distinguish Hammond’s solo work from The Strokes’ catalog, partially due to hindsight and the growing number of entries available for comparison, but mostly because Hammond’s newer music is less derivative of previous Strokes work and more informed by its very existence. Momentary Masters is the first Hammond album that really feels like more than a side project. This is truly Hammond the solo artist, not Hammond on vacation from his main gig — this is the closest he’s come to constructing an identity outside of his role in the band. But even with this polished, almost deliberately singular sound, Momentary Masters lacks character. It is the husk of a great rock album without a personality to inhabit it.
This is a charming album without spirit. Hammond’s singing is pedestrian at best and his writing often dry. Momentary Masters is a one-dimensional record that’s also mostly one-note, which gets tiring even if the unvarying tone in question is a fun one. Though Hammond’s songs remain anchored by some stunning arrangements, his throaty timbre detracts from its surroundings. While previous vocal efforts were balanced by a measured approach to songwriting (on ¿Cómo Te Llama?’s “GfC”: “Inside me there’s a sad machine/ Wants to stop moving/ I disagree/ For the things you do, you should stop doing”), here, the writing is laboring. When he begins album closer “Side Boob” (yeah, really) with a struggle metaphor like “eyes wide as the ocean,” you roll your eyes.
To be fair, Hammond is a guitarist, and Momentary Masters is packed with top-notch guitar music, front to back. “Caught by My Shadow” has a menacing bite to it with a feedbacking riff that dances dutifully around the strings. On “Coming to Getcha”, he laces the album’s best vocal performance — an unfaltering and restrained croon — with even strumming and prancing accents. Some of his best playing comes on the Strokes-esque “Drunched in Crumbs”, which overcomes some spotty songwriting (“I’m so unfit/ Like a pig in shit/ I feel at home at times”) with exceptional presentation. But most of the other songs on Momentary Masters aren’t so lucky.
Essential Tracks: “Drunched in Crumbs”, “Coming to Getcha”, and “Caught by My Shadow”