Career-In-Review: The Smiths

the smiths Overview
I like to think of The Smiths as Britain’s answer to R.E.M. After all, The Smiths released the “Hand In Glove” single right about the same time as R.E.M. released Murmur, and both bands feature ridiculously influential boy-wonder guitar players and controversial anti-frontmen. Unfortunately, The Smiths were never quite able to gel personally and artistically the way R.E.M.’s core members have over the years (it all might have been different if Andy Rourke had covered “Monster Mash” at the end of Strangeways, eh?), and the band died after four or five incredibly productive years.

The Smiths only released four proper LP’s (not gonna cover any of their live releases), and they never really made a defining statement in that format, which is unfortunate, especially for a band that was otherwise fantastic. For my money, I recommend beginning with the Singles compilation. While it is apocryphal, it’s pretty much a great listen from start to finish, and allows you to get a good feel for what The Smiths are all about. Their catalog of singles and toss-offs runs deep though, and in this age of MP3 downloads, there’s probably a couple of CD-R’s worth of great tracks in addition to the stuff on Singles to feast upon.

My personal favorite aspect of The Smiths’ music is Johnny Marr’s layered and luscious guitar playing, but there is no denying that The Smiths would not be The Smiths were it not for the utterly unique vocals and persona of Stephen Morrissey. Additionally, the work of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce often gets overlooked, but tracks like “This Charming Man” bear testimony to the fact that they were far more than bricklayers in the band’s creative endeavors.

Five Track Intro

1) How Soon Is Now?
2) This Charming Man
3) There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
4) Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
5) Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

Studio Albums and other selected releases (*** = recommended album)

The Smiths (1984) — B — After releasing a couple of classic and hard-hitting singles, the band dials it back a few notches for their full-length debut. Spotty and uneven, but holds a few highlights. (R: “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Still Ill”) (see my original review)

Meat Is Murder (1985) — B — The first definite sign that when it comes to albums, The Smiths didn’t quite get it. Not bad, but its Morrissey at his most obnoxious, and the title track is ridiculous. (R: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”) (see my original review)

The Queen Is Dead (1986) — B+ — Almost a classic, but it suffers from poor production. Features a number of “might have been great” tracks. (R: “Cemetry Gates”, “I Know It’s Over”) (see my original review)

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) — B — The best side of vinyl the band ever committed from “Rush” to “Stop Me” – all down hill after “Last Night.” (R: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Girlfriend In A Coma”) (see my original review)

Other recommended tracks: “These Things Take Time”, “Sweet & Tender Hooligan”, “Half a Person”, “Please Please Please…”, “Wonderful Woman”, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”

Wikipedia article

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Quick Review (LP): Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths

The Smiths
Strangeways, Here We Come
Rough Trade; 1987

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours”, “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”, “Girlfriend in a Coma”, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

Truth is, The Smiths were quite adept at producing strong album sides. Unfortunately, they could never put two solid ones together in the same album, and that holds true here, where side A is one of the best they’ve done and side B stinks like the second half of Meat Is Murder. It’s all downhill from “Last Night…”, but the first six tracks do leave you wondering what might have been a little further down the road. The production sounds the best it has, and creatively, they do seem to be branching out, although the decision to de-emphasize Marr’s guitar work is questionable. Speaking of Marr, his work is fabulous on “Girlfriend in a Coma”, and “Last Night…” is the second best epic ode to self-pity they recorded, right next to “How Soon Is Now?” All in all, they sound fresh out of great ideas, so it was probably the right move to call it quits here. That being said, this is a decent record.

Wikipedia article
AMG review
mbbarton blog review

Quick Review (LP): The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths

The Smiths
The Queen Is Dead
Rough Trade; 1986

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “I Know It’s Over”, “Cemetry Gates”, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”

Not quite the masterpiece that most people insist it is, The Queen Is Dead is still the band’s best album-proper. None of the tracks dominate so much as on the band’s other albums, and the record is overall highly consistent. The biggest problem, however, is the production. The instruments are tinny and uneven, and Morrissey’s vocals are so high in the mix that many of the tracks sound like they were recorded in a karaoke bar (see “Never Had No One Ever”). “Cemetry Gates” suffers the most, being as it is an example of a great song poorly engineered. On a positive note, even the “filler” this time around comes off right (see “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” and “Vicar in a Tutu”). Finally, this is the album that contains “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, and that’s a major statement right there. Thought not quite a classic, The Queen Is Dead is nevertheless one of the best rock records of the era and The Smiths record that every rock fan should hear.

AMG review
Wikipedia article
Love Songs On The Radio review
BBC review

Quick Review (LP): Meat Is Murder by The Smiths

The Smiths
Meat Is Murder
Rough Trade; 1985

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “I Want the One I Can’t Have”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

First things first: the title tracks SUCKS. Second, adding “How Soon Is Now?” to later copies of this record is like adding Han Solo to The Wrath of Khan. Just think about it. Otherwise, the band sounds musically strong here, if not quite brilliant. These aren’t the strongest melody/riff combinations they produced, but they are enough to keep me coming back for more. I think this record deserves a little more credit than most critics give it, but at the same time, the band hasn’t quite shaken its tendancy to drag things out too long. Case in point: “Barbarism Begins At Home.” The most important things is that Marr’s genius riffs are abundant. Delicious.

AMG review
BBC review
Wikipedia article
Thorn Brain Music review

Quick Review (LP): The Smiths by The Smiths

thesmiths The Smiths
The Smiths
Rough Trade; 1984

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Reel Around the Fountain”, “You’ve Got Everything Now”, “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, “Still Ill”

The problem for The Smiths is that they were a great singles band, perhaps the best of the 80’s. As a consequence, their debut at times feels padded around the tracks that preceded the record, the classics “Hand In Glove” and “This Charming Man” and the great “What Difference Does It Make?” These tracks are pop supernovae, and everything that surrounds them pales in comparison, but not necessarily for want of brightness. Opener “Reel Around The Fountain”, as well as the propulsive “You’ve Got Everything Now” reveal quite a different side to the band, and the album’s second half is nearly perfect. As a debut, this one feels a lot like Murmur, plaintive out of the gate rather than charging. I’d argue that if they’d left the singles off of this, they might have achieved a masterpiece. Instead, they created an interesting debut, but one that is ultimately forgettable.

AMG review
Wikipedia article
BBC review

Quick Review (LP): Gemini by Wild Nothing

wild-nothing Wild Nothing
Gemini
Captured Tracks; 2010

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Live In Dreams”, “Summer Holiday”, “O Lilac”, “Confirmation”

There’s a huge amount of potential here. The opener “Live In Dreams” is truly great, and the guitar work is frequently excellent. Aesthetically, it borrows heavily from older alterna-greats like The Cure, The Smiths, and My Bloody Valentine without ripping any of them off. So far so good. However, the biggest drawback is the vocal quality. It’s not that Jack Tatum’s voice is bad, it’s that he’s barely audible and not all that exciting. Perhaps that’s the sort of feel he’s going for, yet I can’t help but think that this band would benefit from a great singer. The music’s awful dreamy, and in need of a bridge to reality. Without that, these tracks come off a little bit too much like bedroom demos. I think Tatum needs a Morrissey for his Marr.

Band Myspace site
Pitchfork review