Fans of modern rock in the 1980s (as it was called back then) will always hold a special place in their hearts for The Smiths. Hailing from Manchester, The Smiths were Morrissey, providing lyrics and vocals; guitarist Johnny Marr, Morrissey’s songwriting partner; Andy Rourke on bass; and Mike Joyce on drums. From 1982 until 1987 they produced a body of work that continues to be influential, fueled by Morrissey’s melancholy lyrics and the blistering guitar of Marr; Morrissey’s words spoke to a generation of lonely and alienated teens, myself included.
San Francisco musician Janice Whaley is about to bring her unique take on this musical legacy with The Smiths Project. In 2010 she undertook the formidable task of recording every song in The Smiths catalog, from each of their studio albums and the compilations Hatful of Hollow and Louder Than Bombs. Whaley spent 1300 hours in the singing and recording of the songs, all done with no instrumentation; the results are extarordinary.
I admitedly was skeptical when I first heard that the songs would be done without instruments; a song like “How Soon Is Now,” for instance, is as known for Morrissey’s lyrics as it is for Marr’s iconic whaling guitar work. What Whaley has done is arrange and manipulate her voice in such a way that it’s not necessary to include guitar or drum, and the results are etheral and intimate. She even tackles instrumentals like “Oscilate Wildly” in a way that will bring goosebumps (with a vocal style that reminded me quite a bit of Annie Lennox).
Other guitar-centric Smiths songs are equally rendered in a unique way; “What She Said” is transformed into a kind of otherworldly sonic landscape, while “Bigmouth Strikes Again” has a pleasing accapela quality to it. Some risks are also taken with songs like “Reel Around The Fountain,” but again the vocal arrangement creates an alternate but wholly unique take on the song.
The Smiths Project is a true testament to independent music and is something any fan of The Smiths would enjoy. It’s available now as a digital download from Whaley’s Bandcamp web site for $60, and the six-CD box set is also available for pre-order for $70, which also includes the digital versions as well. Etheral, haunting and beautifully sung, The Smiths Project is a loving tribute to the legacy of Morrissey and Marr.