CoolDaughter #1 took up the guitar at my urging maybe two years ago. That experiment pretty much consisted of my paying the weekly fees for lessons while she never practiced or seemed at all interested in the instrument. To inspire her, I took up the guitar in earnest myself, and I’ve gotten okay at it. I could probably hold my own as a rhythm player in a punk band of 13 year-olds, and I can make my way around major, minor, and pentatonic scales along with several arpeggio shapes.
When you first start guitar lessons, the teacher will ask you to name some of your favorite players. For me, the quick answer boils down to two: J Mascis, obviously, and Johnny Marr.
You’ve heard Johnny Marr. If you’re a fan of The Smiths, that statement is obvious. You listened to that band, Morrissey moving you with his voice and his lyrics, probably never realizing that Johnny Marr was tugging on you almost as hard. The jangly spiderweb of notes on “William, It Was Really Nothing” and the harpsichordian guitar sounds of “Please, Please, Please…” were just as big a part of The Smiths’ overwrought, romantic sound as Morrissey’s words.
But you’ve also heard Johnny Marr if you’ve listened to Electronic, The The, Billy Bragg, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs. Whether as producer or bandmate, Marr continued contributing his signature sound to bands following the relatively short career of The Smiths.
If all of that escaped you, then you’ve heard Johnny Marr if you’ve listened to Girls, Real Estate, Wild Nothing, Beach Fossils, DIIV, Ducktails, Beach House, Memoryhouse, Seapony, and on and on. You’ll even find moments in the catalogs of bands like Pavement and The Decemberists where Johnny Marr’s work has left its mark.
Until now, though, you’ve never heard Johnny Marr solo. At 49 years old, Marr will be releasing his first-ever solo record, The Messenger, next week. I’ve been listening to the stream that’s available over at Rolling Stone for the last few days, and I think if you’re a fan of any form of guitar-based indie/alt rock from the last twenty five or so years, you’ll find something to like.
The record contains fist-pumpers like album-opener “Right Thing Right” and Marr’s comment on the mainstreaming of counterculture, “Upstarts.” There are some more overt references to Marr’s post-punk, Smithian past like “European Me,” “The Crack Up,” “New Town Velocity,” and the album’s title track. The brit-pop of “Lockdown” stands up well next to garage rockers “Sun and Moon” and “Word Starts Attack.”
It’s all held together by a guitar sound that is distinctively Johnny Marr and a vocal / lyrical approach that is much more direct and to the point than, say, Morrissey’s. For that reason, Marr’s current style has more in common with his work with The Cribs or Billy Bragg’s “Sexuality,” which Marr co-wrote and produced, than with The Smiths. If you’re longing to hear a lost Smiths’ record here, that isn’t what you’ll get. But I found it kind of cool to listen to an album and say, “This sounds a lot like Johnny Marr,” and have it be Johnny Marr.
In what may have been a great piece of pre-album-release marketing, NME (Morrissey’s nemesis) recently honored Johnny Marr with its “Godlike Genius” award. The Messenger may not sound quite like the work of a godlike genius, but it does give you a good idea of what Johnny Marr has brought forth into the world over the span of his career.