Johnny Marr, "The Messenger" (New Voodoo)
Thirty years after the Smiths began building their reputation as one of the best bands in history, Marr is releasing his solo debut.
Marr's searing guitar was a singular complement to the plaintive vocals of eccentric Smiths singer Morrissey, and it would have been hard to imagine one without the other as they pioneered the way for post-punk alternative rock. And yet the band broke up in 1987.
Marr has been relentlessly active, a member of numerous bands, including Electronic, Modest Mouse and the Cribbs, as well as a collaborator with several others. But technically, "The Messenger" is the solo debut for the 49-year-old transplant from Manchester, England, to Portland, Ore.
And Marr's signature sound is fully intact, providing a nostalgic journey, perhaps, but not one that feels anachronistic. "The Messenger" is built on his shimmering squalls that stir his trademark improbable blend of gloom, romance and mischief. Although there are tedious stretches that conjure temporary haze, Marr's riffs are both bracing and alluring, sometimes jangling and sometimes droning. His melodies elicit diverse emotions rarely achieved by a guitarist.
That said, there's not much obvious message to "The Messenger." Marr's vocals are average, and his lyrics are forgettable. His delivery is dexterous enough to stir infection on "Lockdown," meld with the rabble-rousing construction of "I Want the Heartbeat" and offer a fitting croon for "Say Demesne." Yet his singing is only fitfully commanding and often sounds like a rote exercise.
So while the cascading cadences and riveting instrumental breaks keep the momentum going, "The Messenger" lacks an equally compelling mouthpiece. And the gap is distracting.
Marr performs April 23 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis.
Chuck Campbell, Scripps Howard News Service
Various artists, "Son of Rogue's Gallery" (Anti-)
It's an interesting conceit — how do you breathe new life into a tradition as old as pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys? Producer Hal Willner first explored that realm on 2006's "Rogue's Gallery." For that album's unnecessary follow-up, Willner enlisted another all-star cast that includes Keith Richards, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Dr. John and Iggy Pop. You've got contributors who look like pirates (Richards and Johnny Depp, who executive-produced the two-disc collection with Gore Verbinksi) and at least two who sing like one (Marianne Faithfull and the Pogues' Shane MacGowan).
It works better in theory than in practice. So many of these collaborations (Michael Stipe and Courtney Love, together at last) feel like they were recorded separately and pieced together in a studio. Richards and Waits make a fine pair on "Shenandoah," and Shilpa Ray turns out a fierce performance on "Pirate Jenny," even though Nick Cave's backing vocals are incidental at best. The rest of this album is as aimless as a ship with no captain at the wheel.
James Reed, Boston Globe