Putting heartfelt conviction into downcast power pop with deep, devoted roots in rock’n’roll history, the Smithereens did something previously unimaginable in the ’80s. The New Jersey quartet came out of that wonderful fringe world in which updates of old-school pop notions were understood to have no mainstream commercial appeal (Dwight Twilley and the Raspberries notwithstanding) — and proved there was significant sales potential for fan-made music.
Girls About Town is a charming but rudimentary four-song concept single, including three originals with “girl” in the title and a cover of the Beach Boys’ overlooked but extraordinary “Girl Don’t Tell Me.” The 12-inch Beauty and Sadness EP boasts three potential hits played as if the future of the world depended on making them impossibly winsome, memorable and rapturous without sacrificing any rock’n’roll energy or guts? Singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio knows exactly what it takes to write great pop songs, and his three bandmates (drummer Dennis Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak and bassist Mike Mesaros) prove they know what to do with ’em on “Beauty and Sadness,” “Some Other Guy” and “Tracey’s World.” As a bonus, they rock’n’bop on “Much Too Much” and reprise the title tune as an instrumental. (The 1988 reissue is remixed but otherwise identical.)
After signing to Enigma, the Smithereens wound up getting a song (“Blood and Roses”) on a film soundtrack. The picture was a flop, but the tune garnered airplay and brought the Smithereens national attention. The Don Dixon-produced Especially for You benefited from the exposure and momentum, and wound up a successful chart happening. Fortunately, it’s also a wonderful record, an unfancy set of memorable songs — “Alone at Midnight,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “Time and Time Again” — that reflect both DiNizio’s sour view of romance and the quartet’s sincere fandom for a number of great bands of the ’60s — the Beatles, Searchers, Who and Kinks. (Suzanne Vega, with whom DiNizio had worked in an office, guests on “In a Lonely Place.”)
The Smithereens was recorded live in New York City in late ’86. The six selections (a perfect cover of the Who’s “The Seeker” joins the group’s own tunes) is flawless, the performance crisp and exciting. Diken’s witty and informative liner notes are likewise exemplary.
Green Thoughts (the titular reference is to jealousy) neatly dodges the sophomore jinx, delivering another set of terrific DiNizio songs, played with the same unpretentious guitar-driven excellence. “House We Used to Live In,” “Drown in My Own Tears,” the countrified “Something New” and the paranoid (and proud of it) title track are especially good, but the entire record is instantly likable and hard to shake. Producer Don Dixon and Del Shannon are among the small group of guests.
Terse, tuneful and towering, 11 — excellently produced by Ed Stasium with unmistakable evidence of his Living Colour work — adds considerable rock crunch to the guitar sound, while allowing DiNizio’s vocals (getting attractive support from Belinda Carlisle, the Honeys and others) to float gently above the fray. With typically great songs (“Yesterday Girl,” “Baby Be Good,” “A Girl Like You”), this contains some of the loudest power pop ever, erasing the Beatlesque genre’s nostalgia with fully modern intensity. Neatly balancing the muscle with a quartet of quieter numbers (the baroque, Left Banke-styled “Blue Period,” quaintly complete with cello and harpsichord, “Cut Flowers,” “Kiss Your Tears Away” and “Maria Elena,” an engaging tribute to Buddy Holly’s widow), 11 is the Smithereens’ lucky number, and easily the band’s best album.
Another Stasium production, Blow Up gets off to a good start with the biting (but stolid) “Top of the Pops” (not the Kinks song) and a souled-out detour, “Too Much Passion,” but then runs out of gas somewhere in the middle of a relevantly rueful number called “Tell Me When Did Things Go So Wrong.” (Short answer: when you were persuaded to hire hit machines like Diane Warren, who wrote the turgid and conspicuous “Get a Hold of My Heart” with DiNizio.) The tired material on this pallid nadir is unimproved by restrained playing and arrangements that cover the band’s assets in guest keyboards, vocals, strings and saxophone. Diken lays down a crackling backbeat and Babjak cranks up his guitar for the penultimate track (“It’s Alright”), but it’s too little too late.
A Date With the Smithereens settles the stylistic confusion by getting rid of all the outsiders (save for Dixon, who co-produced with the band, and Lou Reed, who plays on two tracks) and focusing on buzzing guitar raunch taken at a deliberate pace. The proximity to metal-edged arena power is mildly disconcerting, but it’s DiNizio’s songwriting that has truly lost its balance. Ruminating on a romantic breakup, he wanders aimlessly between the affecting pathos of dispirited pop poetry and alienated, disconsolate grumbling, making tender emotional points in one song and sounding like a miserable, self-absorbed shit in the next. (Typically, the grim “Life Is So Beautiful” squanders its entire sense of irony in the title.) “Guess what there’s a black cloud inside of my head,” he sings in the opening “War for My Mind,” and that’s an accurate emotional forecast for this hit-and-miss album, which threatens to be cutting and ferocious but instead contains a heroic paean to mobster John Gotti and a gratuitous topical broadside (“Sick of Seattle”). While the two good tracks — “Miles From Nowhere” and “Long Way Back Again” — sound like lost 11 gems, “Afternoon Tea” (“for a party of one”) fails in its bid to recapture the first album’s Anglophiliac innocence. A Date With the Smithereens has its moments, but carries way too much baggage for it to be a fun time.
Blown to Smithereens, a well-chosen compilation drawn mainly from the first three albums (using a total of three songs to represent the last two), doesn’t have any of the band’s many rarities other than a cover of the Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me” done for the soundtrack of Time Cop. Still, it’s a great Smithereens record to have if you’re only having one. But it’s no match for Attack of the Smithereens. The album is the happy result of a big-league band of diehard rock’n’roll fanatics (among Diken’s many extracurricular projects is a 1995 compilation of singles produced by Joe Meek) sticking around long enough to amass a large catalogue and yet still having the will to assemble a humbly magical résumé of its back pages. Among the outtakes, B-sides, demos and live tracks are the group’s very first public appearance, stints backing Otis Blackwell, the Kinks, Graham Parker and the Beau Brummels, even an in- store appearance. An attic loaded to the rafters with super-cool covers (the Who’s “The Seeker,” the Beatles’ “One After 909,” the Kinks’ “World Keeps Going ‘Round,” Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” Frank and Nancy’s “Something Stupid”), rudimentary and acoustic versions of classic tracks and other ungilded memories, this is the ultimate Smithereens devotees disc assembled and entertainingly annotated by the ultimate Smithereens devotees. Would that all bands had the guts and personability to give themselves a joyous going over like this.