At a sold-out Johnny Marr show in Chicago a week before the release of his new album, "Boomslang," fans milled about patiently, waiting for the guitar hero to emerge. But one word kept rising out of the murmuring crowd, over the din of the DJ: "Smiths." More specifically, people were talking about the Smiths, the seminal band from Manchester, England, that introduced the world to the brilliant songwriting and playing of Johnny Marr.

The Smiths still mean a great deal to legions of music listeners; one popular British magazine even recently deemed it the most influential U.K. band of all time. But since leaving the Smiths, Marr has hardly looked back, embarking on a series of fruitful collaborations and sideman positions with groups as varied as the Talking Heads, Pet Shop Boys, the Pretenders, the The and Electronic. And while Neil Finn might have persuaded Marr to play a couple of Smiths tunes on a short European tour together, Marr has generally turned his back on that stage of his career.

In fact, "Boomslang" marks just the first time Marr has worked as a leader and primary songwriter since leaving the Smiths in 1987. But make no mistake: "Boomslang" is a guitar album first and foremost, and if the disc rarely reaches the melodic levels of the Smiths, it's probably just because Marr wanted to go in a different musical direction. Backed by former Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan and drummer Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr, and currently on loan from the Who), the disc sticks closer to the menacing mood of the The, tempered by the anthemic broad strokes of Oasis (another Marr collaborator).

With the exception of the rockabilly-flavored "Need It" -- the song closest in feel to the Smiths -- much of "Boomslang" revels in deliberate blues progressions delivered with just a hint of trippy, psychedelic release. Marr himself handles lead vocals, and if he proves himself a competent singer on even spare songs like "Another Day," his pleasant voice never quite pulls you in as the album's focal point.

The same can't be said of his subtle guitar work. Splitting most of the tracks between precise acoustic picking and menacing electric leads, Marr once again reveals himself to be a player of great instinct, a trait that fueled his rise as a session player and extends to his simple but agreeable songs. Marr's slide work enhances the foreboding "InBetweens," while his fuzzed-out slo-mo leads on "The Last Ride" and "Long Gone" help the songs transcend their dirgelike qualities. "Caught Up" and "Down on the Corner" feature the most ingratiating strummed melodies, the latter enhanced by a gospel-tinged piano hook that shows Marr's interest in Manchester's early-'90s dance music explosion didn't end with Electronic.

Yet given his re{acute}sume{acute} and pedigree, Marr's solo bow lacks a certain degree of ambition. Too often he sounds like he's keeping himself in check. But isn't the point of a solo career the chance to relish the spotlight, not shy away from it? Given the group's commitment to touring (Marr and crew will hit the road this year with Pearl Jam), one hopes Marr will open up a bit more and cut loose. The guy is as gifted as they come. It's only fair that he share some more of that talent rather than tease us with a mere taste.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)