Once-successful rock bands often complain at being unfairly usurped by
passing trends, but in doing so they ignore a vital axiom of popular music:
unless you adapt, you cease to be relevant.
Take the Smithereens. In the late eighties the New Jersey four-piece
enjoyed gold albums and airplay hits ("Strangers When We Meet," "Only a
Memory" "A Girl Like You") by winning over alternative/college-radio
aficionados via their near-punk simplicity and conventional rock fans
through an anthemic nostalgia.
Then, in 1991, at the release of a fifth album, Blow Up, the grunge,
er, explosion rendered them passé overnight. Dropped by their major
label, they signed to another, made a flop album and were dropped again.
Harsh? Yes, but the Smithereens had refused to evolve. Their penalty was
a five-year recording hiatus during which guitarist and singer/songwriter
Pat DiNizio tried going solo, bassist Mike Mesaros left and rejoined, and
guitarist Jimmy Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken worked as guns-for-hire
and yet the Smithereens continued touring.
God Save the Smithereens serves as both a welcome return to form
and a frustration. Welcome because there is nothing quite like ringing
Rickenbacker guitars, tight melodies and lyrics about mysterious girls
all of which the Smithereens supply on the opening "She's Got a
excerpt). Welcome too because the subsequent "House at the End
of the World" (RealAudio
excerpt) sees guest vocalist Carrie Akre of Seattle group Goodness
move the sound into something more folky and experimental. And it's
frustrating because from there on the group digs in its heels, relying
on formula. Rather than embracing change, the Smithereens want things as
they were back in the sixties they so admire and the late eighties
when they were so successful.
Not that there aren't good songs on this Don Flemingproduced set.
"Everything Changes" is a memorable midtempo foot-tapper; "I Believe"
resonates with suspended fourth chords so beloved by the Who; and "The
Age of Innocence" throws a nod to the Kinks in its simple guitar riff.
But the paucity of ideas runs aground on "All Revved Up" (RealAudio
excerpt), which sounds like a slowed-down version of the Ramones'
"Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." Then again, the Ramones must know that bands
who spend years rewriting their own songs can't complain when other people
also rewrite them. There are only so many ways to play the same chord.