Sunday, November 22, 2009

Requested Review Two-Pack: "Strangeways, Here We Come" by the Smiths / "Viva Hate" by Morrissey

morrissey you could have tried a little harder with that there coverart buddy.

Oh, hello there again! Yes it has been a while since I last updated. Chicago was a good time. I ate a hot dog with a large pickle on it and bought a wood painting of a cute kitty cat. I could tell you more but that would be boring! Instead let's review some music why don't we.

Today's requested albums come from good friend and blogfriend Paul Grigas. He's been a good buddy of mine for many years. This guy, what a guy!! Paul's a Smiths fan, so it is perfectly logical for him to have requested these records, one being the last Smiths album ever recorded and the other being Morrissey's first solo album a mere six months after their breakup. Since Paul happened to request two albums of me instead of just one, I - like any red-blooded American - got real lazy about listening to both albums enough to write a decent review, and sat on my laurels for a good long time. But hey! That era of darkness has passed, and here I am, ready and willing to discuss this Morrissey and these Smiths.

(although I've still only listened to these albums about one-and-a-half times each and I just want to get this over with, but that shouldn't worry you my friend)

Just to preface, my current status on the Smiths is as such: I first heard their so-called "magnum opus" The Queen Is Dead way back during my freshmen year of college, and I pretty much fell in love with it. And unlike other albums I adored from that period that had already fallen to the wayside by the time I hit nineteen (sorry Oasis), The Queen Is Dead still sounds great to me. I will always dig that crazy Johnny Marr wah-wah guitar on the title track, those high-pitched "Ann Coates" backing vocals on "Bigmouth Strikes Again," and the over-the-top romantic fatalism of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out." It's just an album with a lot of good songs on it! Admittedly, I also picked up Hatful of Hollow shortly after Queen enchanted me and I just couldn't get into it, which began a solid three-year period of me not listening to the Smiths much at all. Until right now, of course!

It is nice to hear that Strangeways, the album directly proceeding Queen, continues the Smiths' then-current trend of writing a bunch of catchy, mostly-rockin' tunes. Right from the loopy opener "A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours," you can pretty much deduce that the rest of the album is going to be a good time. How about that grunty Morrissey vocal delivery? "ARRRRRRRush!" Yeah, man. And how about that riffin' guitar on "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"? Or that background harmonica all over the "Vicar In A Tutu"-esque "Death At One's Elbow"? Yeah, yes. These guys got a good sound. The production's not too different in comparison to Queen, but it's a little fuller, with more strings and horns and maybe even some synth keyboards in the background (never pushed up front, of course - this is the Smiths after all).

Here are my favorite songs on Strangeways: "Girlfriend In A Coma," in just about two minutes, manages to be funny ("Do you really think she'll pull through?"), creepy ("There are times when I could have strangled her"), and - somehow - endearingly bittersweet ("Let me whisper my last goodbyes, I know it's serious") all at once. And it's catchy, too! "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" is typically well-written Smiths pop-rock; "Paint A Vulgar Picture" doubles as an entertaining critique of record companies' treatment of popular deceased musicians ("Re-issue, re-package, re-package / Re-evaluate the songs / Double-pack with a photograph / extra track (and a tacky badge)") and of their obsessive fans ("No, they cannot hurt you, my darling / They cannot touch you now / But me and my 'true love' / Will never meet again"); and "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" nearly tops "There Is A Light" in terms of sheer romantic tragedy. "Unhappy Birthday," too, is a dependable Morrissey kiss-off. While I can't say I like Strangeways more than Queen - the latter, in my eyes, still nails the whole "Smiths" formula better than anything else I've heard - I will gladly file it into the "Smiths Albums Sean Rose Enjoys" portfolio and just leave it at that. (I can see myself listening to it more than once in my leisurely time - this is a plus.)

Viva Hate, Morrissey's 1988 debut solo album, doesn't quite hit me like Strangeways. It's a little more mellow, with a little more emphasis on Morrissey's vocals (obviously) and - at the same time - is a little less gripping and melodic. For me, at least. To be honest, the sound of Viva isn't a huge departure from Strangeways (which isn't too surprising, considering how close those two releases are) but definitely downplays the guitar-driven energy of the last couple Smiths releases (the lack of Johnny Marr, while completely expected, is a bit of a drag). To be honest, I have listened through Viva Hate almost three times now and I have trouble remembering a lot of the songs!! This is not good, for a man like me.

But maybe that isn't fair. Here are some Viva Hate songs I love: "Suedehead," oh man, that song is beautiful. What a pretty guitar! Sounds like the Cure or something. "Hairdresser On Fire" has that lovely piano line and epic melody - that's a good one. "I Don't Mind If You Forget Me" is a Smiths-worthy pop-rock tune - energetic, funny, and complete with a synth-keyboard intro! Who saw that one coming? "Dial-A-Cliche" and "Margaret On The Guillotine" are both very graceful album closers (despite the latter's caustic anti-Thatcher lyrics) and "Atsatian Cousin," unlike the rest of the album, is even more guitar-heavy and bitter than the Smiths ever could have been.

I can't think of any songs on Viva Hate that I flat-out disliked, but after hearing Strangeways it just doesn't "get" me as much. It's a slower, longer, and more morose album than Strangeways so maybe it's just that. Or maybe I'm just being unfair; these reviews are all based on first impressions, after all. I liked Strangeways a lot more upon first listen, and as such I've been listening to it more. I can't help it, man!! Maybe Viva Hate will rub off on me the next time I listen to it, whenever that may be. Until then, I will stick to the Smiths.

Really, I have never been a huge Smiths fan but Strangeways has done a lot to pique my interest. Maybe I should give their earlier stuff another shot? It's worth it. I will say this - diehard fans of the Smiths would do well to seek out this Viva Hate record, as I am sure they would enjoy it a lot more than I have. As a guy who is not that big into Morrissey, I will have to settle for only midly enjoying it. But you don't have to be me! You don't have to settle!!

I am excited, though. My next requested review is going to be a lot of fun - one I have been looking forward to for many months. Look out for it. Also there is a new R.E.M. live album out that is really something special, you'll probably be hearing a lot about that too. Until then, I hope Paul Grigas will sleep well tonight, knowing that his absolute best friend has approved of his musical tastes!! (You know it, Paul. You do.)

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