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Thursday, April 24, 2014 
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Johnny Marr + The Healers
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Boomslang
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As co-founder of The Smiths, Johnny Marr has strongly influenced an entire generation of British guitarists and songwriters, from Noel Gallagher (Oasis) to Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Several of these descendents — notably Bernard Butler (ex-Suede) and John Squire (ex-Stone Roses) — have moved on to rather unimpressive solo careers while their former vocalist partners have thrived by comparison. And now, some 16 years after splitting with Morrissey, Johnny Marr has finally put his name above the title and released his debut solo album, Boomslang. But though he calls his new band the Healers, their debut album isn't likely to make many listeners feel good.

Marr has stayed busy as a sideman since parting ways with Morrissey, collaborating with the likes of Beck, Beth Orton, Billy Bragg, Bryan Ferry and the late Kirsty MacColl. He has also served stints as a full-fledged band member with The Pretenders, The The, and Electronic (the latter a duo with New Order's Bernard Sumner). Much of this work found him in top form, both as a composer and a guitar player. And though he didn't sing with The Smiths, a few songs recorded with The The and Bragg found Marr contributing backing vocals, displaying a rather flat, nasal voice. More recently he began to take the occasional lead vocal, including a rendition of The Smiths' standard "Meat Is Murder" at a tribute to MacColl and a new song, "Down on the Corner," on the recent Neil Finn & Friends live album and DVD.

Encouraged by these initial forays as a frontman, and discouraged by the challenge of finding a suitable singer to front a new five-piece band he'd formed, Marr decided to take on the vocalist role with the Healers, who debuted late in 2001 with a barely noticed single entitled "The Last Ride." That track, and its two b-sides, appear on the new Boomslang, which finds the band rechristened as Johnny Marr + the Healers and reduced to a power trio with drummer Zak Starkey (yep, Ringo's son and touring member of The Who) and bassist Alonza Bevan (ex-Kula Shaker).

As evidenced by most of this album, having Marr sing was not a good decision. His voice remains rather pedestrian: not grating, but certainly not a distinctive instrument that leaves one wanting to hear more. Flat and nasal remain the most apt adjectives for it, with a fair dash of ennui to boot. Worse yet, the songs sound like they were written and played specifically to support this voice, with a stern absence of color — swampy and gray is the predominant feel throughout. This comes as a surprise, considering that Marr so artfully contrasted a bright guitar sound and engaging melodies against Morrissey's oft-depressing yelping and crooning. He also provided a powerfully tuneful framework for Matt Johnson's vocals in The The. (Perhaps it's telling that he composed the melodies for Morrissey, while rarely writing in his later work with the auteur-ish Johnson?)

The low points on Boomslang far outnumber the bright spots. An acoustic one-man show, "Something to Shout About," simply isn't. "Long Gone" makes me glad when it finally is (gone, that is). The shuffling "Another Day" and its "know it/show it" rhyme scheme is excruciating. At seven minutes, the lazy, wah-infested "You Are the Magic" does not make me long for the jam-crazy late '60s. And "The Last Ride," unfortunately, is only the first track, not the finale.

There are a few good moments. "Caught Up" begins promisingly, with Marr deftly mixing acoustic and electric guitars with some neat backwards-sounding bits. The "yeah yeah yeahs" throughout the song are kind of fun, too. But in attempting to deliver an elated paean, to give a spontaneous sense of being caught up in the now, the song is undercut by the band's extreme professionalism, watered down through overdub after overdub. "Bangin' On" has the feel of a very good album-closer — that it's also the album's single suggests that all concerned acknowledge that this album lacks memorable moments. Only the vaguely rockabilly-ish "Need It" qualifies as a success, with Marr's harmonica and acoustic jangle helping make it the album's sole takeaway tune.

Boomslang suggests that Johnny Marr needs a strong personality to collaborate with and against — which is somewhat surprising, as he seems so articulate and engaging on his own in recent interviews. Left to his own devices here, Marr has penned vague lyrics and delivered them in a monotone, coupled with uninspired melodies that only underline the singer's limitations. With this bunch of Healers, I fear that the patient's prognosis is not promising.


by Steve Gozdecki




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