Whoever voted Johnny Marr one of the "Top Ten Guitar Heroes of All Time" must be a total idiot. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page...sure, it's easy to see why, in 2001, they were chosen by the BBC to head such a list. But Johnny Marr? Guitar hero? Where are the flashy solos? The bare chest? The radio play? The ego? As co-founder of the literate, enigmatic '80s pop group the Smiths, Marr hardly deserves to be stuck in the same elephant's graveyard as the aforementioned "heroes." He is, after all, still vital. And still humble. The proof is in the Boomslang.
After the Smiths imploded in 1987, Marr kept his head down as a sideman for over a dozen high-profile acts -- among them the Pretenders, The The, Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, even Beck -- while releasing three albums with New Order's Bernard Sumner under the name Electronic. He's also produced and collaborated with everyone from Neil Finn to Beth Orton to Marion. Boomslang, though, is his first record as a group leader, and it's a crucible bubbling with every great rock riff and pop hook he's been stowing away since the Smiths' swan song, Strangeways Here We Come. Marr's virtuosity has always been subtle, an airy layering of Byrds, Roxy Music and T. Rex that made all his thick chords and dense overdubs feel somehow gossamer. Not that the Smiths didn't rock -- there's no denying the glam swagger of "Sheila Take a Bow" or the punk rumble of "London." It's just that they rarely rocked like this.
On Boomslang's opening track, "The Last Ride," Marr's guitar busts out of the gate with a ferocious snarl; snapping close at its heels are the drums of Zak Starkey (fresh from the Who and his dad's All-Star Band) and the bass of Alonza Bevan (formerly of the psyche-rock outfit Kula Shakur). Their sound is lean, streamlined. Instead of the intricate, nearly baroque finger-picking of his Smiths' work, Marr bashes at his ax till you hear his knuckles creak, yanking hunks of raw feedback out of the song's insides. His hooliganism, though, can still sound sweet and tender. "Down on the Corner" is an acoustic ballad that simmers in a minor key before melting down into the spooky, skeletal "Need It." Just as arresting are Marr's hitherto unheard lead vocals -- angelic but with a raspy edge, not far off from the Stone Roses' Ian Brown.
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Other Brit-pop comparisons are hard not to hear: Oasis, latter-day Charlatans, even a whiff of the Coral in the shimmering weirdness of "Headland." Strange, of course, because Marr has had an inarguable influence on just about every English rock band formed since 1982. And maybe that's Marr's real strength as an icon: Rather than hanging back and nursing his legend, he jumps right back in with each new generation of Smiths scions, rubbing shoulders and getting all sweaty with his disciples. Heroic? Not really. Just human.
Johnny Marr and the Healers perform Monday, May 5, at the Fox Theatre.