The Voidz ‘Virtue’ / Albert Hammond Jr ‘Francis Trouble’ – Review

17 Jun

The name Julian Casablancas hasn’t really been a marker of quality for at least a decade. The last universally adored Strokes album came out in 2003, and his output since then has been hit and miss to say the least. ‘First Impressions of Earth’ and debut solo album ‘Phrazes for the Young’ remain cult fan favourites, whilst I personally loved ‘Angles’. But The Strokes most recent full length, ‘Comedown Machine’ was massively underwhelming and his last solo album was flat out unlistenable for large stretches. ‘Tyranny’ was at least appropriately named; Casablancas is notoriously dictatorial in studio. Made with underlings ‘the Voidz, the album sounded defiantly difficult, shambolic and tuneless. He’s returned to the project for ‘Virtue’, a sequel with a similarly abstract title that makes little more effort to be an enjoyable listening experience. However, it ends up (by happy accident you suspect) being much more fun.

It starts strongly with one of the best out and out songs Casablancas has composed in years. ‘Leave It In My Dreams’ has the rough aesthetic of the best Strokes songs but the arrangement, in typical Voidz fashion, is demented and busy. Little else on the album is this straightforwardly tuneful but there are odd moments of joy sprinkled throughout. Musically it’s all over the shop; elements of hair metal, world music, electronica, trap and bubblegum pop get thrown in to an industrial grade blender and the results are wildly varied in both consistency and quality. At its best (‘we’re where we were’, QYUURYUS’, ‘Pyramid of Bones’) Casablancas sounds more alert and dynamic than at any point in the past 7 years. At its worst It sounds stomach churningly awful. Overall It evens out in to an exciting, unpredictable mess that even in its most terrible moments is enlivened by a sense of adventure and risk. Like his friend and fellow innovator Jack White (whose most recent solo album was equally uneven and divisive) Casablncas is a restless auteur, still splitting opinion well in to his second decade of releasing music.

Fans have known for a while that the safest place to turn for your Strokes related kicks has been Albert Hammond Jr. Nobody could really blame Hammond if he was content to be remembered as arguably the coolest, and perhaps the greatest, rhythm guitarist in a 21st century rock band. But rather than rest on his laurel’s, Hammond Jr has quietly and assuredly been carving out a solo career of some note. ‘Francis Trouble’ is his fifth album, which puts his tally at the same number as The Strokes.

Lacking the expansive warmth and ambition of his still memorable 2006 debut ‘Yours to Keep’, or the knife edge tension of 2015’s ‘Momentary Masters’, ‘Francis Trouble’ initially sounds like a rather anticlimactic addition to the discography. But it’s laid back cool and understated professionalism is exactly what makes it such a likeable, if unspectacular, record. Comparisons to a transatlantic Ellis Costello come easily but the restrained guitar riffs and clipped melodies are unmistakably his own. Highlights include the limber ballad ‘Strangers’ and the album’s giddy lead track ‘Dvsl’.

Compared to the wild ups and downs of ‘Virtue’, ‘Francis Trouble’ sounds pretty steady and unspectacular. But there is something commendable in being reliable. To marry the ambition of ‘Virtue’ with the steady hand of ‘Francis Trouble’ might result in something truly worthy of The Strokes legacy.

The Voidz ‘Virtue’ – 6.5/10

Albert Hammond Jr ‘Francis Trouble’ – 6/10

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