CD Review: The Smiths

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The Smiths
The Smiths,
Meat is Murder
The Queen Is Dead,
Strangeways Here We Come
Louder Than Bombs
The World Won’t Listen
Hatful of Hollow
Rank
Sire/Rhino
By David Chiu
Even though they have broken up nearly 25 years ago, the Smiths continue to leave an enduring legacy and remain as popular as ever — enough to spark rumors of an unlikely reunion and of course anything the unflappable Morrissey says these days. Not bad for a band that in their brief history only recorded four studio albums and tons of non-album songs. Now recently reissued, and remastered by guitarist Johnny Marr, the Smiths recordings still sound magical as ever.

Collectively, the four studio albums—The Smiths, Meat is Murder, The Queen Is Dead, and Strangeways Here We Come—are all essential; the strongest of the bunch would certainly be the self-titled album and The Queen Is Dead. The Smiths (1984) is a brilliant debut introducing the world to the musical genius of Marr and the angst-ridden, pointed lyrics and charismatic vocals of Morrissey (props also goes to the rhythm section of Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke). Practically every song on the record is a gem such as “This Charming Man,” “Hand In Love” and “Still Ill.” Amid the then-popular synth-pop scene of the mid ‘80s, the Smiths’ music provided a contrast with the jangly guitar rock.

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Right from the opening notes of the rocking title track, The Queen Is Dead (1986) is perhaps the most quintessential and beloved Smiths album with songs that have become band standards: the gorgeous-sounding “The Boy With the Thorn On His Side,” the elegant “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and the aggressive “Big Mouth Strikes Again.” Not only is this the greatest Smiths record, but one of the greatest of all time.

It’s not to slight Meat Is Murder (1985), whose highlights include “The Headmaster Ritual” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Isn’t More” (love the fade-out and fade-in near the track’s end) or the vitriolic title song—it may not have the memorable hooks of the previous or subsequent songs , but by no means a sophomore jinx. And while Strangeways (1987) would eventually be the band’s swan song, one can’t tell from it that the band sounded tired or lacked inspiration—but perhaps a bit more polished than the previous ones as indicated on the pseudo-folky “Girlfriend in a Coma.” The rest of the album contains otherwise memorable tracks in the orchestral-sounding melancholic ballad “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me,” the brilliant “Unhappy Birthday,” and the groove-ridden “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish.”

Amazingly, those four albums only tell a part of the story as the Smiths collected so many fantastic songs that never appeared on them. They ended up on compilations, the best of them being Louder Than Bombs (1987) a classic album in itself with indelible tracks like “London,” “Panic,” “William It Was Really Nothing” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Hatful of Hollow (1984) is similar but also collects performances for BBC Radio.

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Rank (1988) remains the group’s only live album and a glimpse of what a Smiths show was like —they sounded fantastic on stage as they did on record. The highlights from this performance are a cover of “His Latest Flame” and the instrumental “The Draize Train”—songs that never been on album.

With these eight albums as the only remnants (so far) of the Smiths’ history, it really speaks volumes for their ability to pack a lifetime’s worth of quality and consistent work in a short span. If you’re a newcomer, start off with The Smiths and The Queen Is Dead and you’ll find yourself addicted to the rest. It’s just inevitable.

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