Albert Hammond Jr.’s Francis Trouble is the first of two albums this March to come from Strokes alumni. Since 2006 (incidentally, the year of their last decent album), the Strokes guitarist has been releasing solo material alongside that of his main band, to mostly decent results. While his material has never sonically strayed far from that of The Strokes, his songwriting has contrasted with that of lead singer Julian Casablancas’ more dramatic and unhinged style, with a more measured and often light-hearted approach.
Francis Trouble is no exception, retaining a tried and true guitar pop sound, with few bells and whistles. Coming during a void of new Strokes material, their future uncertain and Casablancas devoting most of his energy to new band The Voidz, this album should appease anyone craving more no-frills power pop material in the Strokes vein. What sets Francis Trouble apart from their and his own solo material is the underlying concept that forms its basis. The concept is based on his long-lost twin brother Francis, who died after a miscarriage, months before Albert was born. The recent discovery of a fingernail belonging to Francis inspired Albert to “resurrect” his spirit through music, in a way imagining what it would be like had he been alive, but also as a sort of alter ego of himself – a clever, mischievous character represented by the Rocky-inspired cover art. Being based on such heavy and tragic subject matter, one might expect the album’s sound to follow suit, but this proves to not be the case at all, as the album comes off as more of a celebration of Francis and his memory, with catchy and upbeat songs, golden guitar hooks and for the most part, an uplifting and carefree summery feeling. Since he was first shown the fingernail aged 36, he also made the album run at exactly 36 minutes long. It’s a good thing he didn’t find it any later – 36 minutes is the perfect duration for an album like this.
It’s in the opening stretch that much of the goodness can be found – opener “DVSL” gets the album off to a blistering start with a rocky strut of a riff, something straight out of a garage rock revival tune circa 2002. There is a definite feeling of companionship between two people, a sort of “road trip” vibe to the song, supported by the uplifting choruses of “you take me everywhere,” while the call and response vocals in the verses hint at Francis’ troublemaking character – “I’ve been found in neighbours’ beds”. All of this is carried over into the album’s second single, “Far Away Truths”. Perhaps the most purely bright and uplifting song on the album, it rides a sunny verse riff reminiscent of Ought’s “The Weather Song”, before opening up to a radiant and joyous chorus that rings out with joyful abandon, lyrically furthering the subliminal connection between Albert and Francis. Even better, though, might be the album’s lead single, “Muted Beatings”. The crystalline guitar runs at the beginning and later reprised for the chorus, are beautiful and immediately ear-grabbing, making for one of the best moments on the album. It only picks up from there, with somewhat confronting lyrics riddled with bodily imagery, adding a certain measured wistfulness to the summery feeling carried over from the previous song.
From here, the album tones it down a little, with more moody, wistful tunes rather than all-out rock songs. Truth be told, the only song on here that doesn’t really come off is closer “Harder, Harder, Harder” and a lot of that may just be due to its placement – “Strangers” just feels like such a perfect closer that having anything after it feels a bit wrong. In itself, it isn’t a bad song and makes for a triumphant ending to the album, in a way closing with the sentiment that Francis will always be part of Albert. But there’s something about it that feels just a bit hollow and unsatisfying as a closer. The other more driving song on the second half, the aptly named “Screamer”, is a raucous, explosive, surfy number powered by razor-sharp guitars and with Hammond Jr. about as unhinged as he gets vocally, encompassing depravity in some of the most vulgar and direct lines on the album – “I saw you as everyone I wanted to fuck,” counteracted by the very Stones-y “woo hoo”s in the chorus.
The slower, more wistful songs have their moments as well – “Tea for Two” especially stands out as the album’s most bittersweet song, with gruff and bitter verses counterpointed with a knowing and melancholic chorus, accentuated with the hook of “nothing lasts forever”, complete with an airy saxophone solo near the end. “Rocky’s Late Night” is one of the more groovy numbers on here, built around a fittingly nocturnal mid-tempo instrumental, acting as a sort of melancholic comedown after the raw attack of “Screamer”. “Set to Attack” reins in with a moody and overcast feel, while “Stop and Go” is the most understated number on here. Albert’s vocal is at his gentlest and shyest at this point, bringing to mind Francis at his most vulnerable, perhaps even in the womb, awaiting his tragic fate. And then it all comes back to “Strangers”, a hazy carnival-esque song that may be the closest the record comes to a lament for Francis, contending with the fact that whatever happens, they’ll always be strangers in the end.
All in all, Albert Hammond Jr. has delivered another solid album in Francis Trouble. It’s a fairly straightforward, accessible record, with short supply of surprises, but with plenty of punchy melodies and catchy hooks. It’s nothing overly spectacular by any means, but as a solid, dependable indie rock record, you could do a lot worse in 36 minutes and it never overstays its welcome. Now to see what Julian Casablancas offers up with his Voidz’ new effort, Virtue…