The Smiths – Remasters (review)

The Smiths – Remasters Series (Rhino) review For a band that only released four proper studio albums during their existence, there has been a great deal written and spoken about the Smiths.

Rhino Records has just reissued all four albums, plus a couple of compilations and a live record – the entire Smiths oeuvre – available once again.  It gives us an opportunity to re-assess one of the most influential British bands of the 1980’s.

The Smiths debut arrived in 1984, opening with “Reel Around the Fountain”; its slow beat, low moaning, and jangly guitar signaled something all-together new in pop music.  Lead singer Morrissey brought self-pity to an all-time height – never had a frontman hated everything, yet done it in such an eloquent way.  The first half of the album drags a little, and is too slick – the band sounds tentative, unsure of their studio surroundings.  Things pick up with the bouncy “This Charming Man,” while “Still Ill” shows that absolutely nothing would escape the singer’s ire.  “I Don’t Owe You Anything” showed off a soulful side of the band that was (sadly) under-explored on future releases.

Hatful of Hollow (1985) came next, a hodge podge of singles, b-sides, and live tracks recorded for the BBC.  Despite the haphazard origin, this album captures the spirit of the early band far better than their debut.  In fact, every song from the first album is superior in live form – the take of “What Difference Does it Make” is the hardest rocking thing they would ever lay to tape, while “This Charming Man” grooves in ways only hinted at on the studio version, with a thunderous bass line. “Hand in Glove,” the band’s first single, features a harmonica on this version, and is grittier.  If one thing stands out from these alternate tracks, it’s that the Smiths were a great band – every member contributes excellent playing to these recordings.  Hatful of Hollow also featured several recent singles, including “William It Was Really Nothing,” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” which showed much more confidence as a band.  It also signaled the first release of their tremelo-heavy epic “How Soon is Now,” which was originally relegated to a b-side.

Meat is Murder (1985), their second proper studio album, showed an incredible leap melodically, especially on the acoustic “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” with its psychedelic guitar coda.  Morrissey showed that he wasn’t mellowing out, singing “I’d like to drop my trousers to the world” on “Nowhere Fast.”  Yet, “Well I Wonder,” with its loping bass and acoustic instrumentation, was one of the prettiest things the band had produced.  Things shift back to the biting for “Barbarism Starts at Home.”  The album closes with one of their strangest tracks – “Meat is Murder,” with its odd sound effects and animal noises, interspersed with Morrissey’s pleading for vegetarianism.

The Queen is Dead (1986), arguably the band’s finest record, begins with the furiously pounding title track, containing some searing Johnny Marr guitar work, which settles into a surprising groove at the end.  “I Know It’s Over” is one of the band’s best ballads, soulfully propelled by bassist Andy Rourke, while the jangly “Cemetry Gates” features a great bridge section.  “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” which deals with the singer’s penchant for speaking his mind and getting in trouble, is another fine single, while “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” is lushly melodic.  “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” features some classic Morrissey lyrics: “driving in you car / and never never want to go home / because I haven’t got one / anymore.”  What makes The Queen is Dead great is not only the excellent songs, but the fact that everything seems to work at a complete, cohesive album.

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) was the end of the line for the band – much of the album lacks the buoyancy of their earlier work.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t some great songs.  “Girlfriend in a Coma” proved that the band still had their wry humor intact,  while “Unhappy Birthday” showed Morrissey hadn’t lost any of his sharp tongue.  Then, there’s “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” a blunt look at the music business and stardom.  If there’s anyone questioning why the Smiths called it quits, they need to only listen to this track – “reissue / repackage / repackage / re-evaluate the songs.”  As a whole though, Strangeways is lacking both melodically and in overall spirit; the band had run out of gas after only three years.

Rank is the only official document of the Smiths in a concert setting, recorded only about six months before the band called it quits.  Much of the material comes from The Queen is Dead, which was their latest album at the time.  Although the band gives mostly spirited performances, much of it is somewhat unsettling, as Morrissey chooses to growl through some of the vocals.

The World Won’t Listen was yet another compilation, this one coming before the release of their final record, Strangeways.  It was meant to collect some of the non-LP singles and b-sides released in the UK.  However, it was made somewhat obsolete within just a few months, when Louder Than Bombs was released in the US – containing many of the same material here, but adding a great deal more.  There are several songs that are unique to this collection, including the instrumental “Money Changes Everything,” which was originally a b-side to the “Bigmouth” single.

Louder Than Bombs, originally a double album released right before the Smiths broke up, collects many singles, b-sides and tracks not released in America up until that point.  Containing some of the band’s finest singles, including the harmonica-driven “Ask,” the pulsing “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and the mandolin-infused “Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.”  The collection also features some of the band’s earliest work, like the rocking “Hand in Glove,” which shows that they hadn’t quite settled on their sound yet.  It also contains several songs from Hatful of Hollow, which hadn’t yet come out in the US, including “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”

In summary, every Smiths’ album in their catalog is worth hearing.  Of all of them, Hatful of Hollow has weathered time surprisingly well, especially considering it’s ramshackle roots, while The Queen is Dead still stands as their finest studio effort.  If you’re looking for a more conventional introduction to the band, start with the excellent Louder Than Bombs.  Those waiting on a Smiths’ reunion – don’t hold your breath.  –Tony Peters