CD Review: The Smithereens, “2011”

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.

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  • Beau

    How do you figure they’re as old as Rush? DiNizio is just a couple of years younger, but Rush released seven albums before The Smithereens really existed.

  • dslifton

    Always great to see Mojo writing at Popdose again!

  • Anonymous

    Strictly by calendar years.

  • Anonymous

    thanks bro, wish I had the bandwidth to spew like the old days.

  • edmur

    You still look like Dinizio…

  • bb

    Your last paragraph leaves out the fact that practically no one will hear this record, and no one will make any money from it.

  • DwDunphy

    The fans will buy it. That’s the best any “legacy” act can hope for now. The Smithereens no longer have a benefactor like Cameron Crowe in their corner. Now we have Katy Perry’s “Firework” everywhere instead. The point, however, is that even though 2011 will not reach the stratosphere the ’80s albums hit, doesn’t take anything away from what’s good here.

  • Matt

    I don’t understand your perspective on this one…indeed, lots of folks have already heard this record and it’s getting great reviews. I’d say the word on the street for this one is already better than God Save The Smithereens and the band will do just fine, whether they’re making money off of the album, touring or both.

  • bb

    Lots of music fans feel this way. People who make music don’t. For some reason your average fan just says “I’m sure it will be OK”, while people who play, write, record, and otherwise make music are looking for other jobs. Music is becoming a hobby.

  • Old_Davy

    I saw the Smithereens in concert in the early 90’s during the “Blow Up” tour and they were amazing. Opening the show was Richard X. Heyman. Both acts have released albums this year. The Smithereens’ “2011” is a fantastic album – most likely will be my favorite of the year (…we’ll see how well the new Sloan stacks up in a couple of weeks…)

    “Tiers and other Stories” by RXH will most likely be the worst album of the year which shocks me since I adore everything else he’s released.

  • Old_Davy

    I saw the Smithereens in concert in the early 90’s during the “Blow Up” tour and they were amazing. Opening the show was Richard X. Heyman. Both acts have released albums this year. The Smithereens’ “2011” is a fantastic album – most likely will be my favorite of the year (…we’ll see how well the new Sloan stacks up in a couple of weeks…)

    “Tiers and other Stories” by RXH will most likely be the worst album of the year which shocks me since I adore everything else he’s released.

  • Anonymous

    I get what you’re saying but when was it not a hobby? When was it not an era when the fat cat executives (read Hit Men?) were making the money and the artists ended up mostly poor…except for the KISS’s and Michael Boltons and Pearl Jams of the world? Just sayin’…it’s BECOMING a hobby? When was it not? Some idealized Monterey Pop/Woodstock fantasy you were sold by VH1?

  • bb

    Everybody didn’t get rich before, but many people could make a living. That is changing. I’m just pointing out that there are many aspects to the new music economy that many people not working in the field don’t realize. The infrastructure of music is disappearing.

    There may never be another Frank Sinatra. Plenty of people can sing, but Frank had great songwriters, arrangers, musicians, producers, engineers, studios, etc. All those things are going away because there’s not enough money to be made to support all of them. Now you just have a guy who’s a good singer. If he can write some songs, figure out how to record them decently, and be objective enough to get a good finished song out of it he might come out with something OK.

    The problem is that there are very few people that talented in that many areas. The future is going to be a lot of pretty good recordings. Lots of missed opportunities. Very few great ones. Collaboration is a much bigger factor in recording than most people realize. Artists may be able to work for free, but the people and businesses that help them can’t. There are only fraction of world class studios open today that were around in the 90’s. It’s great that we can make quality recordings at home, not so great that that will soon be our only choice.

  • Anonymous

    Fair enough. I was thinking of the musicians themselves, I guess, specifically a lot of the indie artists of the 1980s and early 1990s when I wrote that comment.

    You’re going back further, talking about the infrastructure…and I agree with your points. I was sort of hinting at what you’re saying in the above piece — not disparaging DiNizio’s homebrew solo material, but rather appreciating Dixon’s interpretation of the ensemble sound. It *is* much better.

  • JonCummings

    I love having you back on the site, Mojo, and I love the band & the new album — but I’m having trouble believing that two children could have been conceived (intentionally) underneath that poster. Were roofees involved?

  • Krankiekat

    God save the Smithereens, they still got it in 2011!

  • Davidandrusia

    Love your review, but de Nizio’s clearly a baritone/bass, hardly a tenor!

  • Davidandrusia

    Love your review, but de Nizio’s clearly a baritone/bass, hardly a tenor!