Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cover-versies: The Smithereens

Last week, The Smithereens released 2011, their first album of original material in years.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Like many of the bands I've enjoyed throughout the years, I remember vividly when I firest encountered this New Jersey band. I was sitting in Hunter College's old lounge watching MTV when the video for "Blood And Roses" came on. This video was a tie in for the Albert 'He Puts The Peee-yew in Movies' Pyun Dangerously Close, and it had a touch of the strange to it. Still, I eventually picked up their albums in the various used CD stores that dot the Village and liked them.

The thing I enjoyed about The Smithereens is that even though they're an 80's band from New Jersey, it's obvious that lead singer/songwriter Pat DiNizio's head dwells in an old garage in California circa 1968. Hell, the band spent the early years of its fame defending itself from charges that their songs were nothing but rip-offs of The Byrds and The Beatles. I liked how the band was able to keep their influences alive while putting their own spin on it, bringing those old movements forward and recasting them into meat-and-potatoes modern power pop.

And to be fair, The Smithereens never hid their influences from people. Throughout the height of their fame, bolstered by the popularity of alternative rock and 'new music' formats, the band would throw out covers from time to time. Most of these were of the 'respectful recreation' which I can take or leave, but every once in a while they came up with something like this reworking of their early song, "Behind The Wall of Sleep" they did with Graham Parker on MTV Unplugged. A recording of that version later popped up on the rarities album Attack of The Smithereens.

Here's the video for the original version....
And here's the MTV version...I couldn't find an isolated version of it, so it occurs at the 3:40 mark...
What makes the latter version so amazing is that it serves as a form of reverse engineering. By replacing DiNizio's voice with Parker's, it pretty much lays bare the blueprint for The Smithereens' success. It also, quite frankly, gives us a more desperate narrator, as Parker's voice sounds more lost that DiNizio. This is one of the reasons I love cover tunes; when done right, they reveal new things about the writer of the song, and the performers.

So The Smithereens have had the capability in the past to use the power of the cover tune wisely...but then in the '00s, they went and did things like this...

That's The Smithereens' video for "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," from the detestable Meet The Smithereens. This was the first of three albums (Meet The Smithereens; B-Sides The Beatles; Perform Tommy) where this smart and intelligent band ended up acting like those 'Tribute Bands' that play every third pub on Friday nights. These albums are nothing but the band aping their idols painstakingly...and all I hear when listening to these things are a band with no more pride in their own direction, who are perfectly happy to play pretend and grab the money thrown at them by their old fans, fans of the Beatles and The Who who look at this as a fitting tribute, and ironic hipster doofi. And the fact that a band whose original work I used to enjoy forwent this for three years to play, it pissed me off.

But then, maybe the reason they did these three albums is so they can get themselves together and scrape up material for what has become 2011...although I like to think that producer Don Dixon showed up at their collective houses, screamed at them, returned their balls and made them get to work.

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