Monday, January 20, 2014

The Smiths - s/t

The Smiths (1984) ***

The Schmidts’ legacy is that of the finest U.K. singles band of their decade, while concurrently releasing rather mediocre albums. Perhaps it boils down to Morrissey & Co. being easier to take in the concentrated form of 1-2 punch 3 minute singles as opposed to an entire LP’s stretch of warbling and moaning. On reflection, I disagree with that theory, as Hatful of Hollow is one of my favorite albums, and that’s the problem with their studio debut: I was initially familiar with half of these songs from the BBC sessions on Hatful, and in comparison these slickly produced versions feel so lifeless that they’re borderline unlistenable. And as I can’t honestly number any of the five songs here not duplicated on Hatful as truly essential (pleasant and sometimes intriguing they may be), this renders this disc mostly of interest for Smiths diehards. Which, if you are a Smiths fan, most likely means that you are a diehard, so….

Quick band intro for those in the back of the queue: a mid-‘80s Manchester outfit co-lead by guitarist Johnny Marr, whose jangly hi-end tone made him the finest rhythm guitarist of his generation and possibly in all jangle-pop, period, and a warbling singer/lyricist of self-consciously indeterminate sexuality and mordant wit, Morrissey. While Marr’s musical backdrops are in general unassailably tasteful and often tasty as well, Morrissey’s persona is the deal-breaker for many: casually shocking and self-consciously (there’s that word again) gloomy, you either learn to laugh along with or at Morrissey’s tongue-in-Oscar-Wilde’s-cheek bon mots, or dismiss him as a fey, self-absorbed limey twat. Or take him at face value, which only means that you’re an idiot. Oh, and they had a rhythm section, too, and a quite good one, but nobody ever talks about them.

The songs on this debut set the basic template for the Smiths formula, from which they rarely ventured far from: spiritually descended from the teen angst melodrama of early ‘60s pop (girl groups, Roy Orbison) with the morbidity if not the melodramatics notched up to Spinal Tap’s 11, and built on the bedrock of Marr’s Byrds-descended rhythmic jangle, at once more sharply biting and abstractly ethereal than his ‘60s predecessors. The lyrics concern such cheery fare as child abuse (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), murder, misogyny (“Pretty Girls Make Graves” which may or may not be sung from the perspective of an in-the-closet gay serial killer, contains both), sadomasochism (“Reel Around the Fountain”), homosexuality (“Hand in Glove” – “the sun shines out of our behinds”), impotence (at least that’s what I think “What Difference Does It Make?” is about – “I know I’m the most inept that ever slept”, Your interpretation may vary), the generalized misanthropy of the perpetually unemployed (“Still Ill”), the casual cruelty of the handsome to fat girls overeager to marry (“This Charming Man”) – etc., etc., etc.! Note that I haven’t spoken much of the individual musical merits of the songs such lyrics are set to (except to pause to opine that the falsetto warbling that closes out “Miserable Lie” is the musical low-point of the Smiths’ entire career – who does Morrissey think he is, Ian Gillan screeching “Child in Time”? There, that’s probably the first and possibly last Deep Purple/Smiths comparison any rock critic has ever made.). Reason being that I’m not enough of a musicologist to adequately detail the differing nuances of these stylistically similar ten tracks, and you’d be bored if I did. But I’m still fond of you, a hey ho.

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