TERRY GROSS, host:
The Smithereens have released their first album of new material in 12 years. The collection is called "Smithereens 2011," and was produced by Don Dixon, who produced REM's earliest albums, as well as some of The Smithereens first records.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "As Long as You are Near Me")
THE SMITHEREENS (Rock Band): (Singing) (Vocalizing)
As long as you are near me, I can see things clearly. Let me speak sincerely. All my fears are gone. As long as you are near me, I will have the strength to carry on.
KEN TUCKER: In the world of The Smithereens, women tend to be girls, who tend to be either the saviors or the destroyers of the singer's closed-in universe. With a lesser band of middle-aged American men deploying guitar chords and harmonies that evoke 1960s British Invasion pop, this could come off as stunted, even laughable. With The Smithereens, however, it's an achievement and a musical conservatism rendered joyously.
(Soundbite of song, "A World of Our Own")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) When the world just keeps on bringing you down, you can come by me, and I'll be around. I will try my best to never leave you alone.
When we're here inside with nothing to do, baby, I feel fine just being with you. I will tell them all to leave, just leave us alone. You and I will live inside a world of our own. Just alone...
TUCKER: We live in a world of our own, assert The Smithereens on that song. Lead singer Pat DiNizio is addressing his observations to a woman he's obsessed with - or, perhaps I should say, a woman engaged with DiNizio in a mutual obsession.
That's what a lot of Smithereen lyrics are about: two people who create a world for themselves against all odds, with everyone around them trying to divide them, keep them apart. Everything in Smithereen world is like a film noir shot in psychedelic colors. In "Keep on Running," the story plays out like a teen drama such as "Rebel Without a Cause." They say I'm a fool and I'm wrong for you, the band harmonizes as one. We will leave this town, and together we'll roam.
(Soundbite of song, "Keep on Running")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) They say I'm a fool, and who knows(ph) just for you. But we know they're wrong and that our love is true. Please believe in me. I'll believe in me, too. And our love will last after all (unintelligible).
No, don't listen to the things they say. Just take my hand, and we'll keep on running. No more suffering, time to walk away. You just take my hand. We'll just keep on running.
Every move I make...
TUCKER: The soundtrack to these baby-let's-blow-this-joint scenarios is a thundering mass of guitars and drums that seem powered by the Marshall amplifiers that gave records by The Who and Jimi Hendrix their thick reverberation. Combine that with harmonies and melodies that cross The Beatles with The Byrds, and you know why The Smithereens can hit a sweet spot among listeners for whom the late '60s and early '70s was a summit point for pop-rock. The Smithereens have traded in nostalgia, recording, for example, an album reproducing The Who's rock opera "Tommy" and "Meet the Smithereens," which covered the entire "Meet the Beatles" album.
But this New Jersey band has a talent for creating fresh variations that prevent dust or mist from clouding their music. "Smithereens 2011" reaches a peak with the song that opens the album, the sour-tempered yet utterly transporting "Sorry."
(Soundbite of song, "Sorry")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) Things get better when the wind(ph) comes by, 'cause every time I'm with you, girl, you break my heart, 'cause you don't look at me the same as me. You say stay, and I say no. You make me want to (unintelligible) and you say hello, 'cause you and I will always disagree.
I would stand up. I will fall. Please don't pray for me to go. I would like to say I'm sorry, but I won't.
TUCKER: I would like to say I'm sorry, but I won't goes the refrain of "Sorry." It's one of their sullen, why-did-you-do-me-wrong songs. To say that The Smithereens are stuck in a perennial adolescence is, in a twisted way, to pay them the compliment they seek.
The band prefers to keep things not simple, but narrow. Their tunnel-vision romanticism is, at its best, as obsessive and neurotically rich as a David Lynch film. That The Smithereens has managed to maintain this obsession since the mid-1980s until now without repeating themselves may keep it entrenched in cult status. But for those of us in the cult, it's a hypnotic way to live.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Smithereens 2011." You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org.