The Smithereens: Blood and Roses [purchase]
[Or go for the 30th Anniversary edition]
From 1986, when I first heard the great “Blood and Roses,” from their debut album Especially For You, until 2011, when someone asked me about “The Smithereens,” I thought of the excellent band from New Jersey, whose British Invasion-influenced alternative sound helped to define the music I listened to during that period. After 2011, though, when I heard those words, I thought instead about the Smith College a capella group that gave my daughter so much pleasure during her college years. To be fair, I’ve only seen the rockers once, opening for Los Lobos at the legendary Pier in New York back in the 80s, while I’ve seen one of the oldest all-female a capella groups (formed at least a decade before the Jersey boys were even born) many times. And unlike my friend Lee, I’m not on a first name basis with any of the band, while members of the older group have slept in my house.
That all being said, I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of a capella music, although I certainly enjoyed seeing my daughter and her friends perform. While they were very good, it is way, way more likely that I’d take affirmative steps to listen to the performers of our feature song than to listen to a performance of “Softly.” (But I still check out “Chicago” occasionally....)
“Blood and Roses” is a typical Smithereens song—catchy, but with depth, an intelligent, brooding reflection on love gone bad, and it was successful—included in the soundtrack of a forgotten film, and then a top 20 hit on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and a popular video on MTV (you know, back when.....), it introduced the band to a wide audience. Produced by Don Dixon, whose relationship with R.E.M. probably helped get the band airplay, Especially For You is a fine album from top to bottom and is widely reported to have been a favorite of Kurt Cobain’s, so if you want to draw a line from The Smithereens to Nirvana, go right ahead.
The Smithereens released a number of excellent albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by the middle of the decade, the world of alternative rock had changed, mostly due to the ascendancy of grunge (spearheaded, ironically, by Nirvana), and the band withdrew from recording, although they continued to tour for a while before taking time off. Lead singer Pat DiNizio made a run for Senate from New Jersey on the Reform Party ticket and, not surprisingly, did not win. On their return to the studio and the road (they opened for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers a couple of years ago and are on the road right now), they have released a couple of albums of new material, a Christmas album, and a few cover collections to some critical, but little commercial, success.
That’s really too bad. Because these guys were, and are, good, and deserve to be better remembered. They had a sound that, while filled with recognizable influences, was distinctive, and their songwriting was strong. And, maybe best of all, and certainly compared to the older, all-female group, they play instruments when they sing.
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