[8 January 2007]
All right, folks, we’ve got a lot of territory to cover in a short amount of space, so please hold your questions until the very end. In addition to discussing the merits of the album at hand, we must also consider the career trajectory of the Smithereens, the international record release history of the Beatles, and, time allowing, the formation of Western civilization.
First, let’s all cheer the return of the Smithereens to the recording studio. Hurrah! They were among the better bands of the late ‘80s college rock era, but perhaps suffered from not adopting the jangly guitar sound of R.E.M. and their many followers. Instead, this New Jersey group and its leader Pat DiNizio crafted concise pop music modeled more after 1960s British Invasion sensibilities than the trends of the day. Nonetheless, their output never felt retro or dated. The Smithereens’ first two albums, Especially for You (1986) and Green Thoughts (1988), were both crammed full of catchy songs, from the head-bopping “Strangers When We Meet” to the smoldering “Drown in My Own Tears”. The popularity of the Smithereens peaked with their crunchier third album, 1989’s 11. It reached number 41 on the Billboard album charts, while also spawning the Top 40 hit single “A Girl Like You”. Still, despite the record’s success and a few good cuts, it marked a downward turn in the band’s creative output, which would slide further on their next two releases, 1991’s Blow Up and 1994’s A Date with the Smithereens. I’m sure I’m not alone in assuming the band had broken up long ago and would never be heard from again. Apparently, though, they’ve been touring all throughout the 2000s. Rock on, guys.
However, the reason we’re hearing from the Smithereens again in 2007 is because of another band: the Beatles. Apparently, this Liverpool quartet were all the rage back in the ‘60s! Okay, this much you knew. And maybe you even own a lot of the Fab Four’s CDs. But one Beatles disc you probably don’t have is Meet the Beatles. Unless you own the hefty The Capitol Albums box set or an old slice of vinyl, you’re missing out on the first Beatles LP released on American shores. As you might also already know, the Beatles’ CD catalog reflects the band’s original UK releases, which tended to vary significantly from their US counterparts. Meet the Beatles took all the first-rate Lennon-McCartney songs from the relatively mediocre British full-length With the Beatles, lopping off the cover tune fillers and replacing them with terrific non-LP singles. In fact, Meet the Beatles opens with one such track, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, the song that, when seen performed on the Ed Sullivan show, sent Beatlemania roaring across America. That classic is followed by another killer single, “I Saw Her Standing There”. “All My Loving” was the record’s only other hit, but every song is great. With its volleys of “yeah"s and country guitar riff, “It Won’t Be Long” is especially infectious. The moody “Don’t Bother Me” has a nice surf-inspired bridge, while “Till There Was You” is a lovely ballad. And just try to keep from dancing to “I Wanna Be Your Man”! Top to bottom, Meet is the Beatles’ best early album.
Okay, back to the Smithereens. If it seems odd to have taken so much time discussing a Beatles LP in a review of another act’s CD, the reason is that Meet the Smithereens is an intensely faithful reproduction of the album to which it pays tribute. The greatest difference between the new tribute version and the original are the vocals. DiNizio sounds nothing like Lennon or McCartney and he smartly elected not to attempt imitation. Although the band’s instrumentation follows the Beatles’ blueprint much more closely, their performances are more energetic than reverent, and the Smithereens’ very likeable personality shines through. You don’t need to read the testimonials from the band members found in the CD’s liner notes to know that the Smithereens loved Meet the Beatles and were hugely inspired by its release. Their admiration shines through every note they play. The band knew they could do justice to their heroes, and they did.
Meet the Smithereens is a success in its own right, simply in that it’s a fun record and a welcome return from a once-great band. Also, the quality of the material they covered makes a good case for the wide-scale release of each of the Beatles’ US Capitol albums on individual CDs. The strong sales for George Martin’s 2006 remix-o-mashup, Love, proved that there’s still a marketplace eager for new Beatles CDs to consume. And, since the baby boomers are the only demographic still steadily consuming new compact discs, why not cater to their desires?
Okay, I’ve spoken my piece. We didn’t really touch on the history of Western civilization, but it all boils down to this: First, there were a lot of wars, and then there were the Beatles. Since then, the fighting has been all for naught. Coincidence? Not likely. Today, the Fab Four’s message of love (and hand-holding, and girls) is carried forth by the next generation of musicians, inspired by the awesome works of their forefathers. Ladies and gentlemen, Meet the Smithereens.