Various Artists: Romantic and Square Is Hip and Aware: A Matinee Tribute to the Smiths
Don't forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
-- The Smiths, "Rubber Ring"
More than 15 years after their breakup, the passing of time has made the Smiths prominent again.
A new album, You Are the Quarry, displays Morrissey's undiminished gift for the poetry of solitude. The unceasing aftershocks of the emo earthquake continue to proclaim the relevance of a man whose only avowed sexuality is "sensitive". And though the adolescent melancholy of his songs can be, as he sang in "Rubber Ring", "so easily outgrown", their impact continues to resonate, with everyone from Ryan Adams to Outkast naming Morrissey as an influence.
In short, it's as good a time as any to re-interpret the work of the band that NME touted in 2002 as the most influential of the last 50 years.
Not every effort succeeds, but on Matinee's new compilation of Smiths covers, Romantic and Square Is Hip and Aware, just the attempt recalls the glory of the sacred wunderkind.
At its best, Romantic and Square serves as a tuneful reminder of why the Smiths still matter. The Lucksmiths' underrated Tali White provides two such moments, both with his primary group and as lead vocalist in his Guild League side project.
With the help of additional vocalist Karen Morcombe, the Lucksmiths turn "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" into an affecting, acoustic guitar-driven duet. (Old Mozzer would delight in the subtle change of lyrics at the song's close, "There is a light in your eyes and it never goes out.")
With the Guild League, White turns in a boisterous, theatrical rendition of "Panic" that makes the "hang the DJ" refrain even more incongruously cheerful than on the 1986 original. Far from Pete Yorn's recent dirge-like rendition, the Guild League version amplifies the spirit of the original while still stripping away its MTV-decade production.
Though the rest of the album offers few triumphs on the level of these two recordings, opener "Ask" by the Pines and Slipside's "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" come closest.
Then there are the adventurous whiffs: a Eurodisco/shoegaze take on "I Know It's Over", a trippy "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", a mournful "Sheila Take a Bow". You won't be playing these over and over, but the songs' fundamental strengths shine through their lackluster interpretations.
The Smiths are a difficult band to cover, in part because Morrissey's vocals and Johnny Marr's guitar leads were so distinctive. How can one separate the songs from their performances? Tali White's outings shine the way, doing what the best covers always do: taking another band's song and making them his own (although it helps that his own style is so clearly rooted in the Smiths' bedsit pop).
Other moments (such as a straightforward cover of "Sweet and Tender Hooligan") can't possibly live up to their influences. But then, it just isn't like the old days anymore. No, it isn't like those days.