In the world of The Smithereens, women tend to be girls, who tend to be either saviors or destroyers of the singer's closed-in universe. With a lesser band of middle-aged American men deploying guitar chords and harmonies that assiduously evoke 1960s British Invasion pop, this could come off as stunted, even laughable. With The Smithereens, however, it's an achievement in a musical conservatism rendered joyously.
"We live in a world of our own," Pat DiNizio sings at one point, 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 Smithereens lyrics are about: two people who create a world for themselves against all odds, with everyone around them trying to keep them apart. Everything in Smithereens 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 wrong for you," the band harmonizes as one. "We will leave this town and together we'll roam."
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 combine 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 marked a summit point for pop-rock. The Smithereens' members have traded in nostalgia before — recording, for example, an album reproducing The Who's rock opera Tommy, as well as 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 its music. Smithereens 2011 reaches a peak with the song that opens the album, the sour-tempered yet utterly transporting "Sorry."
"I would like to say I'm sorry but I won't," goes the refrain of "Sorry." It's one of the band's sullen, why-did-you-do-me-wrong songs. To say that The Smithereens' members 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; its tunnel-vision romanticism is, at its best, as obsessive and neurotically rich as a David Lynch film. That the group has managed to maintain this obsession since the mid-1980s until now without repeating itself may keep it entrenched in cult status. But, for those of us in the cult, it's a hypnotic way to live. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.