Playback: The Smithereens

Music Features The Smithereens
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I don’t know if I’d exactly call it an epiphany, but the reissue of 1999’s God Save The Smithereens (KOCH) has certainly crystallized some thoughts in this listener’s head regarding the often blurring effects specific trends and movements can have on our overall appreciation of music. If you read a magazine like this one, you don’t need to be told there’s a world of interesting music that falls outside of what’s deemed “popular” at any given time. But it also seems important to note that a lot of music continues to be good even after it moves from the in- to the outbox of ever-fickle mass tastes.

A hard-edged power pop quartet from New Jersey formed in 1980 and led by singer/songwriter Pat DiNizio, the Smithereens are best known for a trio of critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums from the latter part of that decade (most notably, 1989’s 11), and such memorable singles as “Blood and Roses,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” and “A Girl Like You,” which all received substantial airplay on both college radio and MTV.

Then, of course, grunge happened, and in its yowling wake, bands like the Smithereens quickly found themselves on a very different kind of outside looking in than when they’d first started. Terms like power-pop and New Wave—which were the coordinates that just years before had made the Smithereens part of the previous movement’s solution to the bland, processed music of the day—were now being extricated from the operant rock vocabulary. Not necessarily as part of the problem, true, but nonetheless now irrelevant to the discussion.

Not that the Smithereens felt themselves irrelevant. Confused, yes, as evidenced by a five-year recording hiatus (’94 to ’99) during which DiNizio recorded an adventurous solo album, 1997’s Songs and Sounds before reuniting with his mates for God Save The Smithereens. From its very title—a nod to the late-’60s rallying cry for the then similarly displaced British Invasion band, the Kinks—the Smithereens’ “comeback” album was a proud re-affirmation of precisely what had made them relevant in the first place. Tracks such as “She’s Got A Way,” “Someday” and “I Believe” all rippled with the band’s characteristically smoldering intensity and, perhaps most strikingly, the whole greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts interplay between Dennis Diken’s muscular drumming, Mike Maseros’ punk-aggressive bass, Jim Babjak’s malleable lead guitar and DiNizio’s under-the-skin vocals and lyrics.

God Save The Smithereens sounded fresh to these ears in ’99, and six years later, it still does. The new reissue is a double-CD set that includes not only DiNizio’s aforementioned solo project but also a host of demos, ending, fittingly, with reprises of the group’s best-known ’80s songs heard in acoustic performances by DiNizio recorded live in Spain. This release coincides with a new reunion tour that, hopefully, will find the original foursome back in a recording studio sometime soon. As DiNizio concludes in his notes to the collection, quoting John Lennon: rock ’n’ roll is simply “a guitar, three chords, and the truth.” Past, present, or future—works for me.