In interest of full disclosure here’s the conflict of interest statement Popdose Legal forces us to write on occasions like these: Fellow music critics use my Smithereens addiction as a cudgel against me, challenging my very ability to evaluate music in general because of it. The whole thing started innocently with a dubbed cassette copy of Green Thoughts my brother Jim — fourteen years my senior, to this day more a rocker than some of my peers — sent me freshman year of college soon after its release in 1988. Then came, I’m ashamed to admit (being a card-carrying member of the, never-flinching, nary smiling, hardassed Objective Rock Critic’s Union and all) joining the fan club. It didn’t stop there; I went on to win a trivia contest.
A pal in college, Bryan, heard me jamming Smithereens 11 junior year at cerebrum-melting volume, pulled out the CD booklet and proclaimed at the top of his lungs that I kinda resembled lead singer Pat DiNizio. Had he left it at that instead of hammering me for it over the next two years, a decade later I wouldn’t have had to run Pat down at a solo gig with a PR photo and have him sign the photo “To Bryan and Tracie, best wishes on your wedding, Pat DiNizio” and given it to them at the reception.
Finally, my two children were conceived under the autographed ‘Reens poster that hangs over our bed:
OK, now with that out of the way, let us begin. Last week came the release 2011, the first original music from the Smithereens in the new millennium. Since 1999’s God Save the Smithereens, DiNizio released his second solo studio record, some home-cooked covers material, a Buddy Holly cover album, and oh yeah dumped a metric f-ton of old Smithereens tape in the interim. The band did a couple Beatles cover albums as well as its own interpretation of The Who’s Tommy, and — gasp — a Christmas disc. (I would insert a joke here about DiNizio being a former garbageman from Scotch Plains, N.J., but as a dad and a former freelance writer, I know firsthand that people’s gotta scratch out a living somehow, even after the well starts drying up. It’s all good, bro.)
Don Dixon of early R.E.M. fame produced the set; he’d overseen the Smithereens’ seminal records Especially for You and Green Thoughts, as well as the edgy post-Seattle A Date With the Smithereens. He also produced DiNizio’s solo effort Songs and Sounds. Dixon, who popularized ’80s jangle-pop, perfectly matches the band’s musical ethos, sharing with them a deep affection for the melodic ’60s rock of the Beatles and Nuggets oeuvre.
But 2011 — even with its album art shamelessly mimicking the commercial peak of 1989, 11, and suggesting another round of covers — picks up where Green Thoughts left off, somehow, even though it’s 23 years after the band parted ways with producer Dixon in favor of Ed “stadium rock” Stasium (Living Colour, Motörhead, Soul Asylum) and crunched away on followups 11 and Blow Up. Those albums featured the same great songwriting and straightforward playing, but were clean and digital sounding, without such pronounced acoustic rhythm guitars that helped render the previous material in a mournful, soulful light.
DiNizio’s still got it. His tenor voice retains that singular velvety sound, with an expansive range that can go high or occasionally dig into the bass register — and he writes just enough of those moments into his original tunes to use it perfectly, such as on 2011‘s “As Long As You Are Near Me.” Against the backdrop of the band, with Dixon’s production, DiNizio blends in well. That’s something missed in his solo material; when he’s in stark relief, his song and dance sometimes gets a tad over-dramatic.
2011‘s tuneage echoes the Beatles and Buddy Holly and all the group’s idols, but maintains its own originality thanks to DiNizio’s thoughtful lyrics — which tend to speak elegantly of relationships lost and gained, as opposed to current pop-music themes such as shooting people in the face, tanking 40-ounce malt beverages, or cashing in on crass animal lust on the dancefloor. It’s all glued together with the energetic, accomplished solos of guitarist Jim Babjak and never over-the-top drumming of Dennis Diken. New bassist Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion isn’t exactly new; he’s been with the band on and off for 14 years, but this is his debut playing original Smithereens material. Suffice it to say, he’s had time to blend in.
A more important point: No drum machines here. No ethereal overdubbed auto-tuned vocals that only are achievable in a fictitious digital environment. No souped-up synths padding the background. At least, if there are, there isn’t a flotilla of fx polluting the speakers. It’s rock for rock’s sake, intended to be performed on stage by non-computers.
And 2011‘s songs — the songs! — vintage. In more than one way: The McCartney-esque “One Look at You” betrays the band’s lifelong love affair with Beatles melodies, complete with a Babjak solo straight out of George Harrison’s pre-Revolver playbook and magical, mysterious “oohs and ahs” in its trippy coda; “A World of Our Own” features classic Beach Boys harmony; “Viennese Hangover” is nothing more, nothing less than a rewrite of “Cigarette,” a classic early Smithereens waltz. “Sorry,” a driving rocker with a backbeat-you-can’t-lose-it and a nice little call-and-response ending, kicks off the set and gets the blood pumping.
There’s a lot more to say here, many other influences to point out (seems like every four bars is some sort of Byrds-y curlicue of one sort or another) but you get the point. The Smithereens aren’t terribly original, but they have a singular sound — which is pretty much all you can say about most underground/alternative/indie/whatever bands in the 1970’s and 1980s punk and pop genres. What were The Ramones after all? Fans of 1960s pop, unabashedly derivative yet bringing an original, unmistakable twist to the stage.
With Dixon’s production, 2011 sounds, remarkably, much like the old days. Except DiNizio’s got more life experiences from which to draw his lyrical inspirations — and us fans have more, too, so we can relate. That’s crazy, because it is almost 25 years on. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re not kids, either. These guys are, believe it or not, as old as Rush. As old as my brother Jim, heh. But they still bring the rock, played in that ’80s alternative-rock style. 2011 harks back to a record industry dominated by hair metal, Debbie Gibson, and New Kids on the Block, before Nirvana mainstreamed the alternative en route to cable TV and the Internet killing the record industry as we knew it. This was music the cool, thinking people dug — we were fleeing the Milli Vanillis and Tiffanys and Poisons of the world.
Which brings me to the one bone I’ve got to pick, not with the ‘Reens, but with Dixon, who writes in the liner notes:
“The album, as I knew it and all the boys in this band knew is, it disappearing. People pick and choose songs off the Internet like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet with no idea how the musicians who made these recordings might have wanted the to be heard.” And so on and so forth, an argument for sequencing records so they can “take you someplace. Someplace more interesting than your shitty life at school.”
Feh. I’m calling B.S. on that. Half the Beatles records were half-constituted collections of singles and B-sides. Buddy Holly, who DiNizio idolized and imitated and of whose songs even made a cover album, never put out an “album” per se. Don Dixon himself grew up in an era of singles, and somehow adapted to the LP and album-rock radio. He can figure out how to appreciate this new musical canvas — which to me, kinda resembles the singles-oriented world in which he grew up.
Yes, there was such a thing as albums from, say Revolver to the point where Radiohead stuck a fork in the concept. There’s no disputing Dixon’s contention that a well-put-together album was transformative for us high school meatheads back in the day.
But back in the day, the Big Six majors held a death-grip on promotion, distribution, and musicians’ gonads. The fact is, 2011 released into today’s webstream of instant gratification is a great strategy, the Smithereens’ direct-to-fans promotion of its entire catalog, something a big label couldn’t do. Could this have happened in 1999, that last time an original Smithereens record came out, with the Big Six in their last throes? Look at the scoreboard. It didn’t happen. New fans coming to the table via the Internet’s viral marketing cloud shall find out like us diehard fans found out the old-fashioned way — that The Smithereens have put out a nice little stack of truly excellent records. 2011 is just the latest.
- The Smithereens: Smithereens 2011 (jambase.com)
- The Smithereens Talk Facebook, Vinyl and Playing in Fans’ Living Rooms (spinner.com)