Johnny Marr Playland Review

140721-Johnny-Marr-playland-new-album-cover

Johnny Marr is one of my favorite guitar players.  With The Smiths and later with such acts as The The, Electronic, and The Cribs, he has played an endless supply of catchy intricate riffs and melodic hooks.  But there is no doubt in my mind that at this point, as a songwriter during his time in The Smiths, that Morrissey was the true genius.  Johnny Marr is simply at his best when he has another strong presence to inspire him. His three albums as a solo artist prove this.  (I know the first album was technically credited to Johnny Marr and the Healers, but really that band was under his control.)

The Johnny Marr and the Healers album Boomslang is pretty much unlistenable as it features songs that sound like subpar Oasis.  His first true solo album The Messenger is the best of the lot.  It features the best riffs and at certain times almost, from a musical standpoint only, reminds me of the final Smiths album Strangeways, Here We Come, mixed with some of his work in Electronic and other bands.

His new album Playland is nowhere near as bad as Boomslang, but is not as good as The Messenger.  Johnny Marr acquits himself lyrically.  There is nothing embarrassing.  It is simply that his lyrics don’t really add anything to the songs.  They simply become part of the music.  He can write catchy melodies, but nothing earth shattering.

When you buy a Johnny Marr solo record what you are really coming to it for his guitar playing.  He has time and time again throughout his career provided riveting moments on the instrument.  Somehow his guitar playing on his solo work, especially on his first album, and somewhat on this new album, seems the most pedestrian.  The riff to Easy Money is quite catchy and reminds me of his work with Modest Mouse.  There are a couple other moments on the record that are interesting from a guitar standpoint, but nothing that really wows me, and Johnny Marr has the capacity to do things through his playing alone that are really exciting.  On his record with The Cribs, his playing front to back on that album is excellent, and he sounds invigorated and revitalized.

There are two big problems with this new album.  Most people don’t realize how much Andy Rourke’s bass playing added to The Smiths.  He bobbed and weaved with Johnny Marr in much the same way that Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones do, or any excellent two guitar band does.  That’s not a perfect analogy, but I want to get across the idea of two musicians playing off each other and inspiring each to new heights.  The rhythm section on this album is really straightforward and brings nothing to the table.  Almost every song features a straight ahead 4/4 plodding rhythm.  Mike Joyce often played pretty straight in The Smiths, but again Andy Rourke gave Johnny Marr something to work off of. (Every band but maybe The Who need someone to lay it down and block, and that was Mike Joyce’s role in The Smiths) He really needs a better rhythm section if he is going to make a great solo album.

The other problem is the overabundance of synths. I love when artists try new things and stretch themselves.  Johnny Marr has done so with The The and on the best Electronic stuff, both of which had keyboard heavy arrangements at times.  The Smiths A Rush, A Push, and the Land is Ours show that Johnny Marr can also play really interesting stuff on keyboards when he wants to.  But the keyboard playing on this new album is merely functionary and takes up space that could be used for more interesting guitar parts.

If I’m making this album sound horrible it is not.  It is just that it is just above average when Johnny Marr is really capable of so much more.  I try to review things in and of themselves and not compare things to the past too much.  This is one time though when an artists many past triumphs get you excited and you feel slightly letdown.  I can only say that this album is decent, when really greatness could have been achieved.  I am a huge fan of his and I want to love this record, but every time I put it on I feel no strong emotions while listening.

If you haven’t bought anything by Johnny Marr in awhile and you are looking for something that he has done recently that is interesting, I would recommend The Cribs Ignore the Ignorant.  His guitar is featured in the left hand speaker and a lot of it sounds live in the studio.  It sounds like something was really on the line during the making of that record, and unfortunately here it does not.

Many records don’t fully reveal themselves till many listens down the road.  I hope I am wrong here, but I get the feeling that I’m not.

I spent more time with the record today, after writing the review.  One of the things that is challenging about a piece of music, and I am not under any of the restraints that someone that writes professionally for a magazine is, is that in criticizing it, you without a doubt make it sound worse than it is.  I actually like this record, but feel that it is lacking in the above categories.  If I didn’t point them out I’d be lying.  The rhythm section is functionary, but they do get the job done and can sound quite propulsive at times.  They are just not adding anything to the proceedings other than performing the basic functions of a decent rhythm section.  Is the record better than a great deal of the shit on the radio?  Yes.  Is it a decent record?  Yes.  Knowing what Johnny Marr is truly capable of, from a guitar standpoint, does it live up to his legacy?  No.  Would I recommend it over a great deal of things people are listening to?  Yes.  If you could only spend money on one or two records would I recommend it over some other great records that have come out recently?  No.  All these different thoughts come into play when you are trying to recommend a piece of music:  Where does it fits in quality wise in the current state of music?  Does it break any new ground or at least do something original given the limitations of an established genre?  When people have a limited amount of music that they can acquire how do you try to direct them to the art that you feel is the most worthy of attention?  

Also, your perception of a record can change with added listens, in fact good art should be able to evolve with you.  Are you potentially stopping people from listening to something that may grow more valid over time?  Many of the great records were critically derided upon release.  Most of them find their way, but would the culture be better off if critics weren’t so narrow minded sometimes?  In mainstream culture we are often swimming in a sea of bullshit.  

I can’t read a lot of modern criticism, well I shouldn’t read it anyway, because so much of it seems as if it is not asking itself these questions.   So much of it seems to either champion the wrong values or to be in some kind of competition with itself to be as trendy as possible. (Pitchfork I’m looking at you.)  

When I criticize an artist that I know has brought so much to the conversation, I feel conflicted.  Johnny Marr has earned his right to make whatever music he wishes.  Meanwhile, someone like Beyonce, who is constantly at the top of the charts, is so fucking vapid.  I don’t write reviews on people like her, because it’s not worth my time or money.  If I’m taking the time to write a review of something, it’s usually because I have liked them enough to buy their record.  I’m not getting any free albums in the mail.  

Anyway, there is so much more I could say, but I must disconnect…

The Destroyer of Dreams

The arctic

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves and hates and passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
I want to cry

Cemetry Gates – The Smiths

I was reading the Hampton Sides book In the Kingdom of Ice this morning.  I came upon the following paragraph (They are talking about exploring the Arctic at a time when it had not been fully explored yet):

In 1869, in fact, a French expedition, to be commanded by a scientist named Gustave Lambert, had planned to try for the pole via the Bering Strait, but that expedition had been called off because of the Franco-Prussian War.  Two years later, during the siege of Paris, Lambert was killed in battle, and the expedition was never undertaken.  

At this time preparing for an expedition like that was an absolutely tremendous undertaking.  Lambert must have been dreaming of this expedition for some time.  

We must stand up for peace and against war whenever possible.  It is not only the destroyer of men and nature, but the destroyer of dreams.  

World Peace is None of Your Business Single Review

I have been a lifelong Morrissey fan.  I’ve listened and read enough about him to notice when things were missing in Mozipedia, the encyclopedia based around his life.  I should confirm my bias that he is probably my favorite musical artist of all time and that only very few of his songs have failed to connect with me. (Noise is the Best Revenge being an example.)  Although I haven’t collected every version of every single and b-side, I don’t have money like that, but I do have all of his studio albums, most of his singles, and most of the b-sides and unreleased tracks that are easily acquired.  So keep that in mind when I write a review of his new single.  I have a history with the man.

I don’t know if I would write the same exact review of his new single had I not just read two very powerful books.  These books are Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers and Matt Taibbi’s The Divide.  Kinzer’s book about the Dulles brothers and Taibbi’s book about the injustice of our justice system both include horrible examples of state sanctioned violence both at home and abroad, and by state I mean America.  One only needs to read the news to see state sanctioned violence happening in places across the globe.

Morrissey’s World Peace is None of Your Business is a song that’s lyrics are blunt about state violence and the kind of especially middle class existence that allows you turn a blind eye to this violence.  This song is left wing, but it is also anti-government.

Morrissey has always sung songs championing the outsider’s in society.  This is why this most British of pop stars has fans in every corner of the globe.  Many people wonder why, for instance, he has a large Latino fan base in the U.S., but it is because despite any specific details of his songs, he sings of those that are not accepted by the mainstream.

There are basically two types of Morrissey songs that have been his mainstay since his comeback album You Are the Quarry was released in 2004.  There are his blunter political songs which feature simple language, exemplified by American is Not the World from You Are the Quarry, and his more poetic character studies and personal reflections in songs such as The Father that Must Be Killed from You Are the Quarry’s follow up album Ringleader of the Tormentors.  I believe Morrissey is smart enough to know what he is doing.  I’ve read some fans online criticizing his more blunt political approach, saying they don’t live up to his rich poetic heritage, but I believe when he wants to make a specific point he simply gets rid of any language that could get in the way of making that point.  He is being blunt and to the point on purpose.

World Peace is None of Your Business is this kind of political song.  However, even in language that is relatively simply and which will never leave you confused which side he is on; there are shadows and different ways of interpreting lines.  A pop song is like a good piece of propaganda.  It will get you to turn your head and look a certain way, but there isn’t the time and space for a well reasoned argument covering all of the ground of an essay or book.  Morrissey is a master of this form.

Morrissey is also an excellent provocateur, he throws out lines and statements like bombs and the intent is to start a conversation as much as it is to finish one.  He is savvy enough to still cut through to the headlines in this age of constant information.  When he called the Chinese “sub-human” over their treatment of animals, many blasted his choice of words, but many like me also saw for the first time the cruel treatment of dogs and other animals in China.

In this single Morrissey is making cause with the oppressed masses of the world.  He specifically mentions Egypt, Bahrain, Brazil and the Ukraine.  The rich who run our governments and corporations are his antagonists.  He also is belittling the safe middle class life that allows those oppressors to keep their power.

In the middle of the song he sings the provocative line, “Each time you vote you support the process.”  Now I am someone that believes one should always vote.  However, like Chuck D has said, voting should be like taking a bath in that you should always do it, but it’s the least you can do and you shouldn’t feel too proud of yourself for doing so.  I am still someone that believes strongly in voting as it is one of the many tools we have for influencing a democracy.

However, this is where the books that I mentioned earlier and Morrissey’s nationality come into play.  Morrissey was a vehement critic of Thatcher in the 80’s, especially for how she destroyed the working class.  However, it was Tony Blair’s Britain that aided the U.S. in its criminal invasion of Iraq.  Both Labor and Tories, the two major parties in Britain, are tainted.  He is also an anti-royalist and someone that has noted the police abuse in Britain on many occasions.

As for myself, especially after reading Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, I have realized that both American political parties allow a great deal of state sponsored violence to take place.  Bill Clinton’s presidency ushered in many of the problems that we face today.  I still believe the Democrats are better, especially when held up to the insane right wing Republicans of today, but no one is completely innocent.  We need to do more than pay our taxes and vote to be good citizens.  We need to bare witness to the injustice that is being done in our name with our money.

All of this works for the reason that so many of Morrissey’s songs work.  He is simply one of the best and most original melody writers of our time.  Listen to this song several times and it will get stuck into your head.  He excels at all aspects of the pop song, although I will note that this song’s arrangement is more complex than some of his other singles.  One of his best tricks has always been his scathing words married to his beguiling melodies.  I believe Tony Visconti, one of Morrissey’s producers, said that Morrissey’s main aim was to get people to feel something when listening to his songs, even if that feeling was being uncomfortable.  This song is full of emotion and a large part of that comes from his absolutely stellar melody.

The music and production on this song are excellent.  While not as layered as his masterpiece, Vauxhall and I, the production is probably as large of scale as anything he has put out since.  It starts with percussion and what sounds to me like a didgeridoo before a tinkling piano brings us into the true song.  Despite being just over four minutes it is an epic with a frayed guitar solo, remember when pop songs had those, and an outro of jackbooted drums.

One of the most important things is that the words are actually clear in the mix.  This is normal for a Morrissey record, as you buy his records as much to hear the music as to hear what he has to say, but in much of rock and indie rock has become something of an anomaly.  Often vocals are buried in the mix or treated so heavily that they become another part of the music.

Love him or hate him he is one of the only pop stars that consistently not only has something to say, but is willing to say things that will make certain people uncomfortable, and not just by being sensational.  He wants to see a different world than the one that he lives in.  He still views the pop song as a place for ideas and revolution.  Some may laugh at this, but just last year there was a girl photographed bravely in front of riot police at a protest in Britain.  Guess what, she was wearing a Smith’s shirt.

Morrissey and John Lennon

Could this be an arm around my waist?
Well, surely the hand contains a knife?
It’s been so all of my life
Why change now? It hasn’t

Now this might surprise you but
I find I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
Or your morality to save me
No, no, no, no, no

Then came an arm around my shoulder
Well, surely the hand holds a revolver?
It’s been so all of my life
Why change now? It hasn’t

Now this might disturb you but
I find I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
Or your benevolence to make sense
No, no, no, no

After all these years
I find I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
Or your homespun philosophy
No, no, no, no

This might make you throw up in your bed
I’m okay by myself
And I don’t need you
And I never have, I never have
No, no, no, no

I’m OK By Myself by Morrissey.  This is the last track to his excellent last album, Years of Refusal.  The story goes that John Lennon initially liked Yoko Ono because she had an art exhibit that said, “Yes.”  He says that if it had said “no” it probably would have been a different outcome.  Morrissey ends this album, and you need to listen to the recorded version to get some kind of idea, by singing the word no over and over again like some kind of disembodied spirit.  Morrissey has a very dry sense of humor, but it is there in spades. 

It would do a disservice to the complexity of these two artists to contrast them.  Although John Lennon is perceived often as being a source of light, while Morrissey is often seen as the pope of mope, John Lennon did write Working Class Hero, which is an extremely angry song, and Morrissey did write a song called Do Your Best and Don’t Worry.  Both artists were actually of Irish descent, although Lennon’s grandparents moved to England and Morrissey’s parents were actually immigrants. 

In fact in a strange way Working Class Hero could actually be a Morrissey song.  Many Morrissey songs deal with a sort of pining for a lost English working class.  The early Smiths song Jeane is about a working class couple that can’t keep their heads above water.  “We tried, but we failed.”

Both of them serve the disenfranchised in different ways.  Their writing and their sensibilities are miles apart, but their aims aren’t necessarily much different.  Lennon again wrote the angry political anthem Working Class Hero as mentioned above.  Morrissey, who possesses an extreme hate for Margaret Thatcher, largely because her policies destroyed the British working class, wrote Margaret on the Guillotine

Last year there was a photo of an unarmed English girl standing up to the riot police during a protest wearing a Smiths t-shirt.  His fans get it, even if much of the general public does not.  Morrissey is a source of light for many who have been locked out of the system whether socially or economically.  That is one of the reasons here in the U.S. he has a large Latino fan base.  Much as Lennon is often reduced to a simple cartoon that stood for peace, when in fact he was much more complicated, Morrissey has often been reduced to a sad depressing character in the media when in fact he is much more complex as well. 

The song above would be seen by many as just another anthem from miserable Morrissey, the cartoon character.  But the truth is the song makes me smile.  It has a sort of dramatic humor about it.  And also, what is it if not a song to those that are alone, that they will be OK.  As Morrissey sang in another song, “There are things worse in life than never being someone’s sweetie.”  

I’m OK By Myself link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLd1pwKeknw

I’m Not Listening to the Radio Tonight

http://noshowponies.bandcamp.com/track/im-not-listening-to-the-radio-tonight

You talk just like we do
But only part of the time
You’re only this famous
For towing that company line

And now my love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I used to hang onto
Your every word
But now you change so slowly
I’ve outgrown you for sure

It’s overrated
What you over play

And now my love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I can’t blame you
You just want to be liked
Grew up idealistic
Cashed in to survive
But you used to be mine
You used to be mine

My love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I remember huddling in bed as a kid listening to the radio, waiting for my newest hero to appear.  I also remember moving to Austin and hearing a station not worth mentioning, that used to play excellent and surprising music, turning to the now dreaded corporate driven format.  As Morrissey once sang, “Has the world changed, or have I changed?”  Both I assume.  However, there is no doubt that radio as a whole has been defiled by the money men.

This is actually the oldest song on our new album, No Show Ponies A Manual for Defeat.   Things have only gotten worse since it was written.  The song started out as a sort of a Replacements rocker.  Without the dual guitars of our now current three-piece lineup, it simply didn’t work in that fashion.  The new incarnation is somewhere between the African pop of Thomas Mapfumo and the British jangle of early Smiths.  Again I am honored to play with my brother Ben and our drummer Alex.  Al again understands intuitively what we are going for.  My brother’s guitar brings the magic and the color in ways I had not dreamed possible.  Listen to his prechorus guitar hook.  It’s brilliant.  Recording this song was one of the highlights of the A Manual for Defeat sessions.  I remember dancing like mad children with my brother in the vocal booth as we both sang into the same microphone.  This is also one of the songs that the always great Keith Langford came by for.  He is playing percussion and a barely audible whistle.  It’s there is you search.  His whistle playing had us in stitches during the session.

Public Radio is the only hope for free radio.  It seems to be the only format that is taking risks and trying new things.  That’s not to say that there aren’t other privately owned radio stations that are still fighting the good fight out there.  But on a whole, it is the Public Stations that are keeping intelligence on the airwaves alive.

However, much like religion, at one point or another I just decided to not participate.  Part of this is my disgust in what radio at large has become, and part of that is just my introvert tendencies.  I’ve read that introverts like to bring some order to their surroundings, and I suppose that I do this most often through what is being played.  I am a huge music fan though.  I have been collecting records since I was a kid and there just is no room in my life for the radio most days.  I have too much good music now and the chance of getting burned is just too high.

I feel bad for anyone coming of age now.  To use a term from Keith Richards, most radio is just, “dogshit in the doorway.”  It seems that most artists only rise to the top anymore if their music is lacking any kind of intelligence, wit, or social critique.  The company men have finally figured out how to make money off of music without splitting the pie with people who would sooner see them discarded.   That’s not to say good music isn’t out there, just that it rarely becomes part of the mainstream dialogue.

So anyway, the targets of this song are too numerous to mention.  This song is saying goodbye to radio in the form of a spurned lover.  A love affair, long since dead.  We may have lost the war.  I might be a lone soldier at a remote outpost, not realizing the war ended years ago.  But in my own way, I still fight the good fight…

Santorum Compares Obamacare to Apartheid

http://gawker.com/rick-santorum-thinks-obamacare-is-the-21st-century-apar-1477946884

When I read the article above in my head a long fuuuuuccckkk was uttered.  Kind of like Goofy’s “yahoo”, but a swear word. (You can hear Goofy’s sound at: http://www.hark.com/clips/kmfzpwvtjk-goofy) And then the image of a mushroom cloud crossed my mind.

Add that to an article I read yesterday where Ted Cruz praised The American Legislative Exchange council and I completely understand the Smith’s line, “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.”

Who is still following these people?  Who nods their head in agreement when such ignorance is let loose?  Are the people that speak this nonsense cynics playing to the peanut gallery or true believers of the most senseless kind?  Are they just saying these things to kill someone like me off with an aneurism?

Yesterday I was hanging out with a friend when the new version of Let’s Make a Deal came on.  A soul singing Wayne Brady serenaded an older woman while she went down on a cupcake like it was somebody’s dong.  I am convinced people will believe or do anything.  Anything!!!

I try to be hopeful.  I really do.  But then the world intercedes.

Hat tip to my brother for sending the Santorum article my way.  

Quote

Hang the DJ

Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself could life ever be sane again?
The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
I wonder to myself

Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here
So you run down to the safety of the town
But there’s Panic on the streets of Carlisle
Dublin, Dundee, Humberside, I wonder to myself

Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music they constantly play

On the Leeds side-streets that you slip down
Provincial towns you jog ’round

Hang the DJ
Hang the DJ
Hang the DJ

Panic by the Smiths.  “And the music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life”.  I stood out in the front yard last night talking to a neighbor of mine that works in radio.  Half of our discussion was about how awful most radio has become.  He was telling me that most of the people in radio these days are not music lovers.  He said most of the people in radio that he knows are either business people or those that are there just for a paycheck.  I have no way to confirm or deny those views.  I only have the outcome to judge, which is dreadful.  Plastic people, saying disposable things.  Plastic people, saying disposable things.