A Date with the Smithereens is the worst album yet by the best band in the world
[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Every music writer secretly has an enduring favourite band. It's unfashionable, I know. We're expected to be above mere fandom, to be so nauseatingly au courant that our faves are supposed to be a moving target: "Well," we will archly allow if questioned, "my favourite band of the moment is Pizzicato Five," or whatever. Me? I'm old-fashioned. I'm a musical monogamist. I pledge my troth for life - to the Smithereens.
All right, so they're a rock band. Here, you can confiscate my homosexualist identity card right now. There's not a Roland drum machine or an overblown Afrikanski-Amerikanski diva to be heard in the oeuvre of this quartet, led by the immense, charismatic Pat DiNizio (vocals, geetar), accompanied by square-jawed, mesomorphic Jim Babjak on guitar, cute, wiry Mike Mesaros on bass, and stout, supercool, tam-wearing Dennis Diken on drums.
What do I love about them? When the Smithereens rock, something inside me surges - literally. Tears well, hairs arise, frog appears in throat. The sensation is on the same continuum as that special excitement you (well, I) get when Something Big is about to happen with someone who will in a very short time become your lover. The band's appeal has much to do with the its winsome, rapturous, majestic conjunction of opposites: Power and tunefulness, heartache and crunch, beauty and sadness. All of those, in fact, could be Smithereens album titles, and the last of the three actually is (from 1988). (I also run a Smithereens mailing list.)
Pat's voice, which I have previously described as the most underrated in pop, is capable of infusing warmth and nuance in the conventional rock ballad ("In a Lonely Place," "Room Without a View," "If You Want the Sun to Shine"), leading you on a power-pop joyride ("Top of the Pops," "Yesterday Girl," "William Wilson," "Strangers When We Meet"), and belting it out with zing ("A Girl Like You," "Blues Before and After"). Pat is, like me, a Person Living with Hair Loss™, something he tries to hide with a more varied assortment of hats than Dr. Seuss could have dreamed up, but he is as photogenic as his polar bear-like hands are broad. Where's Weegee when you need him? (Duane Michals would do in a pinch.)
And prick up your ears at this: A prime influence on Pat's writing is none other than Yukio Mishima. In fact, when I asked Pat what he liked so much about Mishima, he leaned into the microphone, grinned, and declared, "His dick!" The lads can talk a blue streak about their work (can Madonna do the same, much as I love her?) and have a broad knowledge of pop-music history.
Sigh. They're so dreamy, these guys.
The pot of cubic zirconium at the end of this rainbow is the new album on the not-altogether-enthusiastic label RCA, A Date with the Smithereens. "Sick of Seattle," "Long Way Back Again," "Gotti" (yes, it's about the mafioso) – they're all formulaic and grating, attributes not found on their other records. I'll give Pat credit for his AIDS song "Afternoon Tea" despite its rank banality. Lyrics like "Afternoon tea for a party of one - this is for me the extent of my fun" are as trite when sung as they appear on paper. The album highlight is the cover art, especially the solarized sepiatone photos of the bandmembers. Devout readers will understand that I hold album art to be an intrinsic part of the Music Experience for sighted listeners like me, but it's not enough.
So I'm crossing my fingers that this is just a dip on the seismograph; after all, there have to be points below an average for there to be an average. Would-be fans are better off listening to Green Thoughts (1988), Especially for You (1986, reissued 1992), 11 (1989), and Blow Up (1991). [Also Attack of the Smithereens, a 1995 rarities/B-sides compilation. Dig the strip-club version of "A Girl Like You"!] Don't neglect their video collection 10 (1990).
And I'm hoping that when, in some future interview, Pat gives me a big warm hug, I won't freeze in surprise as I recently did. Next time, I plant a kiss. I figure he's man enough to take it.