Liner Notes VIII: Hatful of Hollow

hatful-of-hollow
Image via bigother.com

Hey, everyone. I’m John. This is Liner Notes. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

In the years making up the era of post-punk, there were perhaps few bands that proved to be as influential as The Smiths. Coming out of Manchester in 1982, the alternative rock band exploded onto the British indie rock scene, and their crossover success in the mainstream not only opened a similar door for other indie bands, but also further legitimized the talent lurking in the independent music scene.

To truly appreciate The Smiths, I think it’s important to understand what they were trying to accomplish with their music. Like I said earlier, when The Smiths started producing in 1982, they did so in the comedown of the punk rock craze that had ripped through England in the mid to late 70’s. And while the influence of punk was sure to be felt by/seen in these bands—and other bands to come for that matter—The Smiths decidedly rejected a hard rock image, both in their sound and their aesthetic. When The Smiths exploded onto the radios and turntables of music fans, it wasn’t with a barrage of chugging power chords and distortion, but with clean, twinkling guitar riffs and poetic and complex lyrics.

So, what then makes “Hatful of Hollow” in particular so special? It’s not the band’s debut album, and the argument can be made that it’s not even The Smith’s best album (though it’s certainly not their worst). To be brief, I picked it because it simultaneously presents the listener with an incredibly catchy and powerful, albeit imperfect, album, while also laying the seeds for where The Smiths would go musically in the future. In my humble—and debatably unqualified opinion—I find it rare that an artist can do this; more often than not, the result is an album that falls short, and gets written off as a stepping stone with the phrase “it shows potential” attached. Only a select few albums — “Is This It” by The Strokes, for example show flashes of future greatness while still being a great piece of work in the same right.

Back to what makes Hatful of Hollow special. There are Morrissey’s vocals, melodic and beautiful, the perfect accompaniment to Marrs’ guitar playing. They ooze with a wit and charm that keeps the tracks from sounding like the musings of a moody teenager. Yet, it’s undeniable that nearly every song has a layer of melancholy that hangs over it, and that there’s an angst and longing, an air of sexual tension that winds through several songs—most notably “Girl Afraid” and “This Charming Man.” Coupled with imagery that is both striking and subtle, and the listener finds themselves greeted by lyrics laden with ironic twists and winks, delivered by Morrissey in a voice brimming with shyness and attitude that morphs to perfectly suit each track and highlight every facet and theme found therein (I’m sure that only Morrissey could make the incredibly awkward and cheesy line ‘Let me get my hands on your mammary glands” seem predatory and sinister).

I mentioned Marr’s guitar playing earlier, and now’s an appropriate time to talk about it. Choosing to strip away layers of gain and distortion, Marr limited himself to clean, simple tones, resulting in a lead guitar that—for lack of a better term—twinkles. His playing is much more rooted in funk than hard rock, and you can hear this in his riffs: rhythmic, twanging bits and melodic grooves that have the weight of power chords behind them thanks to a layering of notes that creates a rich, full sound. Tracks such as “Handsome Devil” and “What Difference Does It Make?” have a bite to them, while both “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “How Soon Is Now” possess flowing, pulsing chord changes that are wonderful to listen to.

The same can be said of Andy Rourke’s bass playing, particularly shining on “Hand In Glove” and the moody throb of “This Night Has Opened My Eyes.” Again rooted in funk, Rourke carves out a space for himself among the backing of the tracks, exhibiting flashes of his talent while neither overpowering or—more importantly—being overpowered by Marr’s guitar. Both Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce deserve praise for rounding out The Smith’s sound, and providing a power and drive of their own to the tracks that serves to only strengthen and bolster Morrissey and Marr.

If you couldn’t tell by everything I said before, I really enjoyed this album. Chances are, you will too. Or not. Give it a shot either way.

 

Pros:

  • Great singing, lyrics, lead guitar, bass, and drums that make for equally great tracks
  • The album’s a little on the long side, but thankfully provides a body of work that is neither uneven nor disengaging to sit through

Cons:

  • Not many. “Back to the Old House” finds itself sandwiched awkwardly between “Girl Afraid” and “Reel Around the Fountain”, meaning the acoustic laden track makes for an award dip in the otherwise electric guitar heavy songs.

Hit Singles:

“Handsome Devil”

“What Difference Does It Make”

“Hand in Glove”

“This Charming Man”

“Girl Afraid”

“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”

“You’ve Got Everything Now”

“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”

Long Plays:

Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues (indie rock with some funk)

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (indie rock with some punk)

The Cure – Faith (indie rock with some techno)

John F. Guido is a staff columnist for the Highlighter.

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