Still Rocking After All These Years
During my college years, the Smithereens' Especially For You album captured the attention and imagination of my friends and me; Pat DiNizio's unique baritone mixed with his emotionally charged songs of loss and loneliness were the perfect commiseration companion for a confusing time.
Particularly the song "Blood and Roses," which included the lines, "I want to love but it comes out wrong/I want to live but I don't belong," and the rocking "Behind the Wall of Sleep" charged our rock 'n' roll passion with layers and layers of dirty guitars and minor chords.
The 'Reens would ultimately hit the top of the pops with a number of radio hits, only to fade during the alt-rock 1990s (although, in truth, they really fit the time musically) and have toured ever since. Their excellent 2007 recording Meet the Smithereens, a complete re-take on the classic Meet the Beatles album, proved they still have a gift for rock.
On the heels of that comes a DiNizio solo studio album titled ?????? and the Smithereens' Live in Concert: Greatest Hits and More, which was recorded over four days at the band's old haunt, the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, N.J.
The latter is primarily a re-hashing of those old tunes that captured my senses years ago, but it is also more proof that the Smithereens can still kick out the jams.
"Sleep" kicks off the set and guitarist Jim Babjak shows he clearly hasn't lost a thing when it comes to handling a six-string. And DiNizio's voice is as haunting as ever when he bellows, "She had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965/She had legs that never ended, I was halfway paralyzed." Fun stuff.
"Only a Memory" also affords drummer Dennis Diken to show off a bit - this guy is one of the better rock 'n' roll drummers of our time for my money and, sadly, is also a well-kept secret.
Interestingly, "Since You Went Away," which leads off the DiNizio solo disc, is included in the live show, as is "Any Other Way." (More on that later.) A fun highlight, though, is that the band pulls out a slowed-down and dark rendition of Buddy Holly's "Well Alright," and caps the set with the Batman theme from the campy 1960s TV show.
Getting back to DiNizio's solo album, which is his third since 1997 - are those two songs DiNizio songs or new Smithereens? Are the two mutually exclusive? Whatever the case, whereas DiNizio's previous output leaned toward smoky jazz-infused rock, the newest disc is filled with more straight-ahead rock, quite reminiscent of the Smithereens' final original studio album from 1999. In addition, both Babjak and current Smithereens bassist Severo "The Thrilla" Jornacion play on the album, with producer Kurt Reil (of the Grip Weeds) providing drums, so it's nearly a Smithereens album in itself.
Again, it's all good, as the album is packed with solid, if not overly remarkable, rock songs about - you guessed it - loss and loneliness. The acoustic "Night Without Sleep" offers a nice turn and is followed with "Wonderful," which chunks along on Babjak's heavy riffs like a runaway train.
"Any Other Way" is another highlight and sounds like it could be a lost Lennon song with its haunting arrangement, reverbed guitars and bittersweet lyric. (Reil does a magnificent job with the drums on this track as well.) Possibly the best tune of the bunch, however, is the heart-wrenching "Love," a beautiful melody and an unusually hopeful lyric about the world's most-written-about emotion.
It would surprise me to learn that either DiNizio or the Smithereens will pull many new fans with this stuff; not that it isn't good stuff, just that the ears of the masses are tuned in to other things these days. But for a nostalgic old guy like me, well, both of these albums are must-haves. They will no doubt grace my CD changer for a while to come.
Find out more at www.officialsmithereens.com.