Thursday, November 5, 2009

Especially For The Who

THE SMITHEREENS – “Play Tommy” CD ’09 (Koch, US) – Funny how sweet coco can be. No, that’s not it, that would be a review of the 1971 Sweet album. Or maybe another band’s rendition of it. Huh, you ask? No, children, what I mean to say is funny how we arrive at certain things, like the way I managed to navigate to this SMITHEREENS release. I first heard the Carteret NJ band (Christ, I used to stay in a Holiday Inn there all the time when I made record buying trips to NYC) in 1986. There I was, minding my own business driving to work in my hideous grey/tan (never figured out what colour it really was) Cavalier and suddenly this awesome, jangly REM-like guitar monster was on the radio. Best part yet was that the singer was going on about being “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” Now, I knew this wasn’t Sabbath but who else would croon those lyrics? Well, I found out said cut originated from THE SMITHEREENS “Especially For You” album and I immediately sought out a copy. I was instantly caught up in the suitably jangly “college” racket raised by the guitars of Jim Babjak & Pat DiNizio, the latter’s immediate and slightly sarcastic mid-range pipes. Mostly, though, I fell for the brilliant indie-pop-rock melodies throughout the record. Much like the aforementioned “Behind…” there were gems like the insistent and haunting “Blood & Roses,” not to mention lesser-known but equally great tunes such as “Cigarette” & “Hand Of Glory.” I quickly grabbed the band’s next effort, 1988’s “Green Thoughts” and was just as impressed. And here’s where it gets funny…. For some reason known only to God, or maybe Bon Scott, I simply never got around to buying any of THE SMITHEREENS’ following records. For years, I was aware that they’d put out several discs and I always had intended on snagging them, but in a fit of some sort of Ray-induced idiocy, just never did.

Now, it’s the fall of 2009 and my prog/bowling buddy Rick says to me, “Hey…Pat DiNizio is doing a solo show at a place right up the street in a couple weeks, wanna go?” I stood stock-still for a moment, squinted into the sun like Clint Eastwood and said, “Yup.” It was then that I finally realized that this band who had so captivated my listening in those ’86-’88 years had been thoroughly ignored by your’s truly since. Still, this was going to be a solo DiNizio show so I stopped by the local store, intent on picking up the latest Pat D solo effort, a tribute to Buddy Holly. My first discovery was that they were out of that one. Shit! But, my 2nd discovery was that THE SMITHEREENS themselves had done their own version of The Who’s “Tommy,” released earlier this year! Wow! That is different! Of course I bought it. Was it a great find or a misguided purchase?

Let’s put it this way, I’ve gotta believe Pete Townshend has a bit of a smile on his face if this one has bounced off his eardrums. At first, I have to say, I was a bit leary. Covers in general strike me as “Ok” at best usually, cool if done off-the-cuff in a live format, ok if put on an album in the right place & time. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown” done by Judas Priest is a great example. But this, an entire album, particularly one of this stature, that is a helluva leap of…something…by THE SMITHEREENS. The truth is, however, it works famously and here’s why I think it does. In my opinion, the best covers are done by artists who are great songwriters themselves. Think about it…the aforementioned “…Manalishi” done by prolific songwriters Halford-Downing-Tipton. Metallica doing jaw-dropping versions of numbers by the likes of Diamond Head, Budgie & Mercyful Fate. Even on a local Baltimore level, the best cover band in existence is Deadlock…and, by another name, they’re Shift who’s all-original CD I salivated over in the September blog. What I think it is, and what THE SMITHEREENS display on “Play Tommy” is this: intense songwriters respect intense songwriters. They have an understanding of what it takes to craft and love a song, to nurture it and allow it to take shape. They understand the care and love that songwriting takes. And that’s why a band like THE SMITHEREENS, when having a go at something like “Tommy” would never try to replicate the original. In an interesting duality, there is a sincere and fervent effort to both take care with the writer’s original and yet allow their own creative juices to flow over the song and make it something different. Listen to “Pinball Wizard” here, for example. The harmony vocals bring a Beatle-esque feel to the proceedings and when DiNizio unexpectedly takes his voice down an octave for the “How do you think he does it?” section, the effect is startlingly brilliant. “Sparks,” one of my favourite Who pieces begins in ungodly heavy fashion here, Babjack’s lead guitar howling like a banshee and yet then the band manages to toggle back & forth between that jangling they’re so known for and crushing metallic power chords. “Eyesight To The Blind” sounds like a whole new song and then the band smartly stick close to the vest with their take on “We’re Not Gonna Take It / See Me Feel Me”…until the crushing bridge riff they use sounds like a Tony Iommi fuzz-storm from “Vol. 4!!!” Well, Pat Di Nizio has mentioned being such a huge Sabbath fan that he nicked the “…Wall Of Sleep” title from the Sab 4’s debut album.

Gotta say, in conclusion, that I sure as hell didn’t see this one coming. A complete album cover of a icon-level classic by a band that I’d sort of put on the shelf for a bunch of years and yet here it is, currently dominating the Realm-o-Matic play pile. Funny how sweet that coco can be, eh babe? Amazing Journey


The Ripple Effect said...

I think the Smithereens were amazingly under-rated. Near perfect powerpop. My first song was "Blood and Roses," and it still holds tall today.

raysrealm said...

I remembered hearing "Behind The Wall Of Sleep" and then when I read DiNizio saying in an interview that he was way into Sabbath, that completed it for me.

raysrealm said...

Meant to add, going to see DiNizio tonight doing a show of both solo stuff and comedy. Should be fun!

raysrealm said...

Just got back from the DINIZIO show....totally cool, a really great, intimate show by a great songwriter who also comes off as a very cool, regular guy. Easily one of the very best shows of the year!