After years of shadow standing, Johnny Marr is making up for lost time. With 'The Messenger,' his official solo debut released last year, (not counting 2003's 'Boomslang' issued as Johnny Marr & the Healers), Marr made it clear that he was more than ready to walk into the spotlight, front and center. Now with his sophomore effort, 'Playland,' Marr attempts to silence any doubters as to his ability to be the main attraction.

“When 'The Messenger' came out I kept on writing," Marr said in a press release for the new record. "I liked that the band had a momentum going on tour and a connection with the audience, and I thought that energy would be good to capture on the new record.”

That energy is quite apparent as the album kicks off with 'Back In the Box,' a straight ahead rocker that recalls not only moments of that band Marr used to co-pilot (the Smiths) but also shines with a kinetic post punk energy, showing shades of the Buzzcocks and the Jam. 'Easy Money,' the album's first single, rolls in next with a slightly funky, but somewhat awkward, groove, slightly harkening Electronic, his project with New Order's Bernard Sumner. The song never fully catches fire the way it should, though.

Things get back on track with 'Dynamo,' which finds Marr's guitar fully in command, alternating from the jangly to the crunchy, and dishing out a first rate solo. As guitar hero, Marr has so often been able to avoid the cliches of the pose. He is not a show off, yet he hardly hides his talents. The key to his playing is he is always tasteful in his choices, but at the same time, is not afraid to cut loose when needed.

The production is punchy, and the performance by Marr and company is tight and energetic throughout, but there is something missing. Unlike 'The Messenger,' which had several genuine highlights and exciting moments, 'Playland' never coughs up the goods in the same way.

The album ends with 'Little King,' a bright, chiming rocker that recalls later era Echo & the Bunnymen, but without the distinct croon of one Ian McCulloch. In fact, much of the album has a somewhat generic "Britpop for the ages" feel to it -- Cast via the Mighty Lemon Drops by way of New Order and so on.

The real ghost in the room, however, may be that of the Smiths, who haunt tracks like 'Candidate,' 'This Tension,' and 'The Trap,' all of which are practically begging for Morrissey's vocals to come barreling out of the speakers.

That, perhaps, is the problem with 'Playland.' While it's actually a fine album, it's missing that something special to really push it over the edge. It's not that Marr has a bad voice, but it is ultimately somewhat nondescript. The songs are relatively strong, but are never able to lift themselves to that top shelf, as if waiting for the words and voice of his old sparring partner to seal the deal.

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