Sunday, August 28, 2022

"Lost" and Found: Another Date with The Smithereens

I’m from Jersey, and The Smithereens will always be my Rock band.

As a kid growing up in the Garden State, I was always in awe of The Smithereens – local heroes who made it big and produced some of the best albums of the 1980s. Although the band’s career has hit plenty of peaks and valleys over the past 42 years – and The Smithereens will never truly be The Smithereens without the great Pat DiNizio, who passed away five years ago this coming December – these lifers (joined these days on vocals by Marshall Crenshaw, Susan Cowsill of The Cowsills or the Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson depending on when and where the gigs are) have never stopped playing. On September 23, the band will release The Lost Album, a full-length collection of previously unheard recordings by the band’s original lineup, on Sunset Blvd. Records.

The material that comprises The Lost Album was recorded during a precarious time in The Smithereens’ history. While the ’80s saw the band gradually rise from local Jersey heroes to college radio darlings to major label hitmakers (a trend that reached its zenith with 1989’s stellar 11 and the single “A Girl Like You”), the early ’90s found the band – by then comprised of members well into their 30s who had already slugged it out for a full decade – struggling to find its footing in a rapidly changing music industry. In September 1991 – the same month that delivered Nirvana’s Nevermind – The Smithereens released Blow Up, an album that was notably softer in its approach than the group’s previous albums and best remembered today for yielding the bulletproof ballad “Too Much Passion.” While Blow Up was still a fantastic record and a natural progression for a quartet of maturing musicians, it was simply the wrong album to drop in the fall of ’91 – a career misstep from which The Smithereens never fully recovered. Thirteen years after its formation, the band entered NYC’s Crystal Sound Studios in the fall of 1993 without a label after being dropped by Capitol Records.
Working without a producer, The Smithereens recorded two albums’ worth of songs during this time in hopes of releasing at least some of them on its own label. As guitarist Jim Babjak explained in a 2020 Asbury Park Press interview, half of these songs later surfaced on 1994’s Don Dixon-produced A Date With The Smithereens (released by RCA before lower-than-hoped-for sales drove the band back to the indie world for the rest of its career), while the remaining tracks were left in shoebox purgatory until Babjak and fellow surviving original members Mike Mesaros (bass) and Dennis Diken (drums) dusted them off for an eventual release. Now, two years later, these 12 previously unheard Smithereens tracks have been assembled and presented as this stand-alone release.
As with every Smithereens record, The Lost Album gifts us with plenty of treasures. Wisely selected as the track to promote its release, the rocking “Out Of This World” is classic Smithereens that should have been the hard-hitting radio single the band needed after “Too Much Passion.” It’s such a joy to hear the original Smithereens lineup charge out of the gate with a long-lost number as strong as this one. “A World Apart,” “Monkey Man,” “I’m Sexy” and the fantastic mid-tempo stomper “Stop Bringing Me Down” easily maintain this high standard. As always, Diken – forever The Smithereens’ secret weapon and one of Rock’s most underrated drummers – elevates the proceedings (especially “Don’t Look Down”) through his dependably tasteful and flawless timekeeping.

Beyond that, The Lost Album is a very mixed bag – and reasonably so. To appreciate this release, one needs to embrace what it is and what it isn’t. According to Mesaros in the press release on the collection, “The Lost Album remains only 80 percent finished and rough mixed.” At least to this writer’s ears, The Smithereens’ most beloved recorded material always benefited from the sonic oomph of a good producer – the key to the foursome going from being yet another exceptional bar band from Jersey to a group that penetrated MTV in the era of Poison. (Before anyone considers these words an insult, keep in mind that The Beatles had George Martin. Producers are often necessary, and Don Dixon and Ed Stasium deserve as much credit as Pat and the fellas do for getting The Smithereens’ songs heard by the masses.) Without an umpire adding the requisite sheen, much of The Lost Album’s remaining tunes simmer when they deserve to scorch. (For example, take a listen to the frustratingly sparse “Dear Abby” and imagine what it could have been if it had been given the same space to expand afforded to “Afternoon Tea” off A Date With The Smithereens.)
Does The Lost Album ultimately measure up to the rest of The Smithereens’ discography? No. If anything, it makes it clear that the strongest material the band created circa 1993 ended up on A Date With The Smithereens – the band’s heaviest and, at least in this writer’s never-humble opinion, finest album. Is there another “Blood And Roses,” “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” or “A Girl Like You” (or even something that matches the power of the A Date With… number “Miles From Nowhere” and other home runs from this era) buried somewhere on The Lost Album? Not even close. Nevertheless, this is still a full-length CD of new-to-the-world Smithereens music featuring Pat. In 2022. That’s pretty damn amazing. And frankly, even a batch of average Smithereens songs recorded in 1993 and discarded for decades is still head and shoulders above most current Rock music out there.
Although far from perfect, The Lost Album reminds us that the original Smithereens was a special combination of musicians that created sounds both beautiful and timeless. What a band.
Goddamn, it means so much to hear this stuff. The world is a better place with this album in it.
A Few Words for Pat
I first met Pat DiNizio in the fall of 2000 through a mutual friend. Back then, he was running for a Senate seat in New Jersey (an endeavor chronicled in the 2001 film Mr. Smithereen Goes to Washington.) During this time, I was invited to a private backyard acoustic show Pat played in the neighborhood, and the two of us ended up having a deep conversation after he performed. Like me, he was concerned over illegal music downloading – a topic he made a critical talking point at his media appearances during this era. He argued that this practice was doing irreparable harm to artists like him who relied on back catalog sales for income. While Lars Ulrich earned more attention – and far more disdain – for making a similar point, Pat's words truly hit home for me because of who he was – a working class Jersey guy determined to provide for his family through his art. He put a genuine and relatable public face to the obstacles many working musicians endure in trying to earn a living in the industry, and he deserves our gratitude.
Pat and I kept in touch for a few years after that, and he was always a positive and supportive person. I remember sending him a demo of my then-band, The Graveyard School, and him calling me up a few days later and exclaiming, "Wow! That's REAL fucking music!!!"
And then there was Pat's music. The Smithereens' Green Thoughts album is one of the finest releases to ever come from the Garden State, with “Especially For You” serving as a song of healing for me over the years at times when Pat's words were able to say everything I couldn't. Earlier in The Smithereens' career came "Behind The Wall Of Sleep," a pop masterpiece on par with The Beatles' finest moments. It was the song I asked Pat to play when he was taking requests at that private backyard show all those years ago, and the vision of him delivering it to me and the rest of the small crowd that evening will stay in my mind forever.
You were a lovely man, Pat. Thank you for the music and sharing your time and gifts with us.