Onstage, Johnny Marr shakes his hips slightly and spins out bright jangling guitar lines. With cool confidence, he makes leading his new band, Johnny Marr + the Healers, look easy. He even chews gum while he sings.
In spite of an enchanting and effortless live show, though, his band’s new album, Boomslang, is a little disappointing. The songs are all solid, but none of them really spark. Live, the tight playing sets the room on fire. On the album, which Marr also produced, the songs just sort of sit there.
Joined by Zac Starkey (son of Ringo Starr and current drummer for the Who) on drums and Alonza Bevan on bass, with guests and occasionally band members doing double duty on synth, backing vocals, organ, and electric piano, there’s something decidedly middle-aged about the album. It lacks the angst and vigor — but also the mopey and whiney elements — that propelled the Smiths, Marr’s first band. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two, but I can’t see Marr’s new work inspiring legions of obsessive fans like the Smiths, formed in 1982 when Marr was 18. In the interim, Marr has been part of the The and Electronic, in addition to working with the Talking Heads, the Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Beth Orton, Oasis and most recently Haven, whose recent album, Between the Senses, he produced.
Boomslang features plenty of big, searing guitar lines, much like the ones he created for the Smiths, and generally sounds a lot like the Britpop that his first band influenced. The opener, “The Last Ride,” seems a little like a blander version of “How Soon Is Now?” from the Smiths’ 1985 release Meat is Murder. The album’s best moments are the slower, mellower songs, like the laid back “You Are the Magic,” also a standout live cut with its slinky synth and guitar, and the intimate “Something to Shout About.” “Down on the Corner” skips along like a bright afternoon, though the mid-tempo jangle hardly lives up to the lyrics: “caught up, shored up/ letting me down again/ caught up/ I’m running amok yeah.” Pounding drums drive the stormy “Need It.”
Full of competent, if somewhat lifeless, rock songs, maybe one of the album’s flaws is that Marr’s voice is good but not particularly distinctive. Nor are they lyrics very memorable. In “You Are the Magic,” Marr professes “You are the magic (4 times)/ You make it easy/ You make it easy/ so easy to be me.”
It’s hard to find fault in anything on the album; everything is impeccably executed. But it’s equally hard to find much to rave about. While it’s exciting to see Marr for the first time fronting his own project, I wonder if he’s not better off as a brilliant collaborator.