The Voidz, Virtue | ★★★ 1/2
Albert Hammond Jr., Francis Trouble | ★★ 1/2
Julian Casablancas stepped away from the Strokes with a fully loaded scattergun of musical ideas and an itchy trigger finger. With his main band settled into a modest middle age – he’s made no bones about his boredom with it, though he remains the frontman – Casablancas approaches his new project the Voidz with a “no rules” sensibility à la his Seventies punk and art-rock heroes. Virtue is a sprawling, unpredictable mess that finds beauty and sometimes depth by looking for it everywhere. Like 2014’s Tyranny, it sounds like the work of a dozen different bands that happen to share a singer; unlike Tyranny, Virtue doesn’t seem deliberately off-putting, following a confused muse down walkways both catchy and challenging.
Keeping up can be confounding: “Leave It in My Dreams” starts the album like a honeypot for purist Strokes fans, but crushes that vibe immediately with the invigoratingly insane “QYURRYUS,” which pastes a Middle Eastern vibe atop an electro undercurrent. “All Wordz Are Made Up” rides an Eighties R&B wash – or maybe it’s just a Beck homage – and sounds like an audition for a Kanye collab, or a grungier version of Casablancas’ ace Daft Punk track “Instant Crush.” Elsewhere, the Voidz return to Tyranny‘s more aggressive sounds: “Pyramid of Bones” rides the Sabbath/White Stripes axis and “Black Hole” is impenetrably, punkishly raw. There’s even a spare, aching ballad, “Think Before You Drink.” What ties them together, besides Casablancas’ voice, is his quest for meaning in a politically dark world (“Don’t ever listen to the white man’s lies,” he advises). He doesn’t have answers – a recent Vulture interview that went mildly viral made that abundantly clear – but why should he? Virtue is the sound of honest confusion – messy, complicated and intriguing.
Francis Trouble, the fourth album by Strokes guitarist and chief dandy Albert Hammond Jr., can’t help but seem tidy by comparison. Where Casablancas couldn’t wait to swerve out of their main band’s lane, Hammond continues to mostly choose the straight and narrow. A tight, uncluttered 36 minutes, it’s everything you’d expect from the guy who put the trebly shine on “Last Nite” and “Reptilia,” and who also had his own line of suits: His music and his style are both impeccably tailored. Those perfect lines can be more admirable than breathtaking, though, and they’re remarkably easy to glide right past.
It’s too bad, because the album’s inspiration sounded intriguing: Hammond’s twin brother died in utero, and his mother didn’t even realize she was still pregnant with Hammond until later. Hammond recently discovered that his miscarried brother left behind a fingernail in the womb, and it got him thinking about the bigger picture. Unfortunately, if that revelation yielded anything emotionally significant, it doesn’t really come through in his lyrics, which aren’t particularly deep. (“How strange it is to be strangers,” he opines at one point.)
That isn’t to say that nothing sticks: “Muted
Beatings” adds a bit of welcome stink, calling back to the early Aughts
without being slavish about it. “Stop and Go” has a bright,
unstoppable chime, and it’s a little more downcast than the rest of Francis
Trouble, bringing some much-needed texture. But elsewhere, even at its
economical length, the album feels like one long song composed of too-familiar
elements: a bit of Kinks here, a soupçon of Oasis there, and a heaping helping
of the Strokes, naturally. When he unbuttons a bit, Hammond can find a groove,
but most of Francis Trouble feels polished to a fault – fun
while it lasts, but easy to forget.