There was a time, oh around the late '80s, when being a Morrissey fan meant paying for it through insults and if unfortunate enough, beatings by your school's latent homosexual alpha male.
Now, being a Morrissey fan just means paying for it by any means necessary - loan shark, second mortgage on the house or sale of vital organs. Honestly, with all the product he's put out over the last year, how is one expected to keep up? And now this week, three new releases - and we're still in the midst of the Your Are The Quarry campaign.
So what to buy? What not to buy? How do they rate? What's with the sub-par cover art? I'll break it all down for you with staggering detail.../p>
LIVE AT EARL'S COURT
Notes: While the advance press releases and the back of the record state that this live recording took place at Earl's Court in London on December 18, 2004 in front of 17,183 people, my operatives tell me otherwise. In fact, this recording is a collage of several gigs from the last few gigs of December. That explains why his between-song banter (which is usually pretty witty) comes of stilted and stiff.
But let's pose the real question: what's the point of the live album? Usually, it's an easy way for an artist to make good on record contract obligations. For example - the Smiths owed their record company one more album after Strangeways, Here We Come, but of course, they broke up before Strangeways even hit the shelves. So what did the band and the record company agree on? Rank.
Which leads us to Live At Earl's Court. What's the point? Well, let's assume - for sake of argument - that this entire concert did take place at Earl's Court. It isn't the best gig of his solo career - far from it. If you want to hear him at his peak, look for the bootlegs of Wolverhampton in December of 88, the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles of 1991 and the Limelight in 1992. These shows were full of passion with emotion that can't help but resonate from stage to record. Live At Earl's Court comes off as a nice souvenir of the Quarry tour. Morrissey's voice is in fine form and it's aged quite richly, but it sounds as if he's singing to the house band. The opening song, How Soon Is Now? sounds incredibly mechanical.
Is this record a must buy? No, not really unless you're a completist like myself. Will you transfer the songs to your iPod? Possibly a few: "First of the Gang to Die" is nicely executed as is I Have Forgiven Jesus, but this release wasn't intended to win new fans - my guess is that it was put out there to keep the Morrissey brand name out there.
Song Selection: Not great. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (which sounds like it's being played at half speed) is one of the few non-Quarry songs. There's nothing from Your Arsenal, nothing off Viva Hate and only one song from Vauxhall and I - incidentally his three best albums. Instead we get a selection from Quarry along with its b-sides and a couple Smiths tunes just to remind you of Morrissey's pedigree.
Performance: Morrissey sounds strong, but there's nothing new by way of surprises. My complaints are more with the band itself. The rhythm sections sounds outstanding, but the guitars are far too processed and the piano fills really homogenize a once raw sound.
Cover Art: An improvement over the Quarry artwork, but far from his best as a solo artist. The silver embossed lettering is a nice touch, but the fact that the case is made of cardboard with no protective jewel case is quiet bothersome. You know that one is going to get dinged up within a week.
WHO PUT THE 'M' IN MANCHESTER
Notes: This is it - this is as good as it gets when it comes to quality. As far as video output, "Who Put The 'M' In Manchester is the best thing Morrissey has ever put out, solo or with the Smiths. The sweeping cameras, the crystal clear close-ups, the well-designed menu interface - it makes his earlier video releases like Live in Dallas (1991) and Introducing Morrissey (1995) look like student-filmed bootlegs.
So the show featured here took place at Manchester Evening News Arena in Manchester, England on May 22, 2004 - Morrissey's 45 birthday and homecoming after a 12-year absence from the town. The hype had been built up on this event for weeks, which in today's conversion charts in years. With all this potential in the works, Morrissey aired out his checkbook and hired Bucky Fukumoto along with a film crew and at least a couple dozen cameras to document the entire thing.
Bucky has done his homework on Moz and figured out what would go over with him so the concert begins with monochromatic shots of a stagnant Manchester - dilapidated brick buildings and dirty, narrow streets. This Manchester travelogue segways into fans milling into the M.E.N. Arena (flashbacks to the Hulmerist concert video filmed by the late Tim Broad) and then the gig itself. Morrissey hams it up with the first few bars of Sinatra's My Way which works in this case and he's off: abbreviated hip shakes, microphone cord whips, genuflecting and so on.
It's a perfect document of Morrissey in the flesh who is now well into his Cycle 4 days and I think it may even misrepresent the typical Morrissey concert experience - I went to all five dates of his Wiltern Theater stand in Los Angeles (which took place one month before this show) and I have to say, I enjoyed this DVD almost as much as actually being at the shows themselves. Call me a bitter, old cynic, but sometimes sitting on the couch watching a Moz gig far outweighs watching the same gig sandwiched between two sweaty fat guys in a paper-thin Smiths shirts for an entire 70 minutes.
Song Selection: Again, this offering is head and shoulders above Live At Earl's Court in regards to song selection. Morrissey dips lightly in the Smiths catalog and just about every stage of his solo career with the exception of Kill Uncle, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted - the three albums that the casual fan usually overlooks. The selection works though - he wisely left the usual slow stinkers like All The Lazy Dykes and Come Back To Camden off the set list for more upbeat selection. Not a perfect offering, but if you do your homework and compare this set lists from the You Are The Quarry tour, this was the zenith of Morrissey's live cache.
Performance: He's not as active as he used to be like when he used to hurl himself over stage monitors or thrash around the drum riser, but Morrissey can still whip a microphone cord better than anyone in the business. His performance is stellar throughout - not a dud in the bunch and this is exactly why Who Put The 'M' In Manchester is miles better than Live At Earl's Court - a Morrissey show is a visual experience - audio recordings are fine, but it's like listening to a sporting event on the radio: you know there's action going on somewhere because you're hearing an account of it, but how can one visualize a Michael Jordan dunk or a George Best shot on goal just from an audio transmission? You can't which is why Live At Earl's Court comes up short - it's no slight on the artist in question, the live album is a flawed medium. Who Put the 'M' is essential.
Extras: Sanctuary finally throws fans a bone and includes excerpts from Morrissey's appearance at the Move Festival on July 11, 2004, again in Manchester. And again, the results are outstanding - the footage is a bit more raw though as it seems as if someone in the film crew hid a microphone in the audience. Normally, audiences singing along with the talent is horrendous, but here it works and at times‚Äîespecially during Subway/Every Day Is Like Sunday - it's touching. The Move Festival extras also marks Little Barrie's final gig with the band and it's here where you notice how perfect Barrie Codgan would have been in the dearly departed Alain Whyte's place - everything from the haircut to the Gibson 335 leave subtle reminders of what it was like when Johnny Marr used to stand stage right.
The extras also include a few music videos and a PETA documentary narrated by Alec Baldwin. I haven't watched the PETA doc, but it's described as a film that "covers each stage of life of animals raised for food" so I probably won't be taking it in any time soon - I'm sorry but I like a fine steak every now and then. It might not exactly be propaganda, but in regards to PETA, it's as close as it comes.
Cover Art: The cover image is a bit sloppy - the art director couldn't decide whether to go with a close up of Morrissey or a full stage shot so the person went with both. It slightly diminishes the quality of the content on the disc, but the quality of Morrissey's cover art hasn't been what it used to be. No one even takes credit for this design. And again, this is a paper affair - no hard shell cases for this one.
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out/Redondo Beach
7", CD, DVD
Notes: As far as singles go, they're usually released to promote an album or tour, so it's no surprise that his double-A side single is being released the same week that Live At Earl's Court and Who Put The 'M' In Manchester? is out in stores. Again, Sanctuary Records gives the release just enough new material for it to be worthy. This is really only for Morrissey aficionados, I can't imagine a casual fan making the trip to the local mom-and-pop indie shop to hunt this item down - this is for those obsessives like myself who panic if their 7" and 12" singles Morrissey singles collection is incomplete. I can assure you that I was obsessing about gathering every format of this single for weeks until it found a home on my bookshelf, sheathed in two Mylar wrappers and a cardboard backing.
Song Selection: As my friend Manfred says, how can this be a new offering when There Is A Light is as old as a good majority of Morrissey fans. Released in June 1986, the song still holds up, but this version is incredibly slow - almost funeral march slow. Redondo Beach, an old song by Patti Smith from Horses is a particular choice for a cover song - Morrissey keeps the pseudo-reggae feeling to the tune and in all honesty, his version is far superior to Smiths, but the track is just OK. He's chosen better songs to cover in his career - even Twinkle's Golden Lights is head and shoulders above Redondo Beach. The b-sides are studio outtakes from Janice Long's radio session from London sometime in late 2004. The tracks (Noise Is The Best Revenge and It's Hard To Walk Tall When You're Small have been readily available in bootleg form on the internet for months so there's no surprises here. The songs are good for being b-sides and one is glad that Jerry Finn (You Are The Quarry's producer) didn't get his hands on these tracks and put his brand of gloss on them.
Performance: There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is tepid at best - slow and almost phoned in. It's anyone's guess as to why he chose it over other more deserving songs. Patti Smith's Redondo Beach isn't bad, but the reggae undertones here are distracting. Still, Morrissey and Co. perform it far more pleasantly than when Smith yelped it out in 1975.
Extras: If you have the scratch, hunt down the European version of the CD single - it contains two versions of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out from Who Put The 'M' In Manchester. Again, not sure why Sanctuary or Morrissey decided to slap this on since there's probably hundreds of hours worth of interesting outtakes, but again, one has to assume it's to cross-promote the other releases.
Cover Art: This is what salvages this release - the coverart. There are two versions of cover art for this single (well played, Sanctuary): the UK and US 7" and CD depicts our hero taking a knee in a London cemetery with the late Johnny Thunders' old Vox teardrop guitar resting on his shoulder. This is typical Morrissey - carting out his possessions for the camera eye, still it's a nice tribute to the New York Dolls. The European CD/DVD uses a still from the same photo session except this time, the prop is a cemetery statue overlooking Moz in aviator sunglasses. Again, the cover art makes these formats a must-have for obsessive completists like myself, but don't expect this one to go platinum anytime soon.