Sunday, March 17, 2013
by Wayne Robins
In its February issue, Mojo magazine featured a cover story on Johnny Marr, along with a free CD featuring a selection of tracks from his estimable career since being the ying to Morrissey's yang in the Smiths.
What was striking about the Mojo disc was that if it were a stand-alone album, it would have cemented his place as the great British rock guitarist of his era, even if the competition was stronger. The Smiths era (1982-1987) was dominated by synthesizers and dance tracks: the default mode was Depeche Mode. It was the confident Marr's beguiling guitar that gave both warmth and gravitas to Morrissey's misfit complaints. If I could bottle one riff from the entire decade it would be Marr's Bo Diddley meets-"Disco Stomp"-meets Dick Dale tremelo riff that elevates "How Soon is Now?" into another sphere.
What makes Marr such a valuable musician is his dedication to the idea of the band comes before his need for recognition as a soloist. After the Smiths, he didn't just play on albums by The The (led by Matt Johnson), Electronic (Bernard Sumner of New Order), Modest Mouse (Isaac Brock), and the Cribs—he joined the bands, toured with them, co-wrote material, even stayed in Portland for five years after hitting it off with Brock.
It's not exactly clear to me why "Boomslang," by Johnny Marr and the Healers (2003) doesn't count as a "solo album"...except for the Healers part, of course. It's also a little strange that the names of the musicians who played with Marr on "The Messenger" are hard to find. (The download I purchased lacks such information.)
For those of us who crave the excitement of guitar rock with a solid song structure and with a dollop of maturity, "The Right Thing Right," is the perfect kickoff. It's also a wonderful ethos for an adaptable professional musician, beginning with a siren riff that takes you right to the heart of the song.
Our artifice obsessed web-centric digital world emerges as a theme in "I Want the Heartbeat": Think the juke-and-jive of the New York Dolls and the innocence and verve of the first Franz Ferdinand album. "Word Starts Attack" appears to be about the decline of manners in interpersonal communications. And there's "Generate! Generate!," a high-energy antidote to a pop music culture based on the notion of "calculate! calculate!"
"The Crack-Up" updates the high-gloss funk of Chic, while "Upstarts" is so anthemic you can imagine it as the curtain raiser of a Broadway show, or that electric moment of anticipation and expectation before a riot.
That moment, in the form of a making a life changing decision and acting on it, is the subject of the album's most personal song, "New Town Velocity." Marr has said in interviews it's about the day he decided to leave school and pursue his bliss as a musician, damn the consequences.
"The Messenger" is full of the vitality that comes with finding one's voice, as both a singer and as a solo songwriter. Intelligent phrasing, belief in the lyric and sincerity in the delivery characterize Marr's capable singing. If you're wondering why it took the youthful 49 year old self-described "band animal" to go full solo, the answer is in the question: how soon is now?