[28 October 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Call it fate; call it bad timing; call it the curse of the Smithereens, but here is one band that should have made it—made it huge—but just didn’t reach the top echelon of rock royalty. Not that Pat DiNizio and Company didn’t try or have the talent; they’ve talked the talk and walked the walk with equal aplomb for over two decades. They even had a few big-time hits along the way, but for some reason there was always something blocking their path to stardom.
Maybe it has to do with being the right band at the wrong time. Coming up in the early ‘80s, they faced two heavy hitters on college radio in the form of R.E.M. and U2, as well as fighting against the tidal wave of new wave. Let’s not forget the MTV video pop craze, anchored in Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, the GoGo’s and Van Halen getting “Hot For Teacher”, and it’s clear that the musical murderer’s row which the Smithereens faced was daunting. As the decade progressed and the band slowly carved out its alternative niche, the hair metal movement gained momentum, relegating quality bands like the Smithereens and Long Ryders to perpetual second tier status.
Considering what the band was up against in terms of opposition, it’s something of a surprise that a trifecta of songs scored significant airplay. “Blood and Roses”, “Only a Memory” and “A Girl Like You” (from 1986, 1988 and 1989 respectively), brought the Smithereens crossover success, as each track was grounded in sharp songwriting and gritty power chords. Should these hits have launched the band into the stratosphere? Absolutely, but how could the Smithereens be the biggest band on the planet if they weren’t even the biggest band in New Jersey? That lofty position was held by Bruce Springsteen, with the integrity-challenged Bon Jovi a close second. Even as the decade closed, DiNizio and his boys couldn’t catch a decent break; Guns’N'Roses was nearing global domination, and grunge was stepping into the on-deck circle with Nirvana and Pearl Jam readying themselves to change the musical landscape forever.
Give the Smithereens credit though, as they kept recording and touring throughout the ‘90s and into the new millennium, (not just for the sake of a paycheck, but because of their tireless love of music), churning out a handful of serviceable albums. Now, nearly a quarter century into their career, the Smithereens can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor with the release of the new twin disc anthology. Thirty-nine tracks encompassing the past and the present, the set is Smithereens 101 and 102, providing devoted and casual fans alike with all they need to know about a vastly underrated act. Is every song a classic? No, but every one hints at the Smithereens’ subtle skill of creating from their surrounding environment. There are shades of power pop, punk, surf, rock-a-billy and bar band bluster everywhere, and not a single song feels inauthentic; just good solid music, without the proverbial bells and whistles.
Critics will say that the Smithereens were never anything more than the supporting cast to the bigger acts of the day. Perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that the anthology contains some fine efforts, considerably more than many of the Smithereens’ style-versus-substance contemporaries. And let’s not forget that DiNizio’s band is still hanging around, making music the way they’ve always done it, on their own terms without compromise. How many bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s can say the same thing?
With a fairly sizable catalogue to its credit, the band sprinkles the two CDs with bits of everything, even a live track and some previously unreleased material. Would a few extra rarities have made the set even more appealing? Definitely, but what’s included can stand on its own without much complaint.
Will the Smithereens ever reside in the penthouse at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Probably not, but in the grand scheme of things, who cares? Those that remain loyal to the band will thoroughly enjoy the new anthology, while those looking for some decent guitar hooks and catchy song writing should take the plunge.
Nothing fancy, just like the band itself…