The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For a band that has gone through a number of highs and lows during its 30-year run, The Smithereens continue to retain the same sound — and voice — that is starkly present in their earliest recordings. Pair their latest offering, “2011,” with their first studio album, “Especially For You” (1986), and search for any dramatic, significant differences. I’ll spare you the endeavor: outside of an indiscernible change in the bassist, they don’t exist.
The same qualities are there: the consistent and soothing (if not pained) voice of lead singer Pat DiNizio; Jim Babjak’s guitar riffs; the heavy and well-timed drumming of Dennis Diken; lyrics touching on love, broken hearts and everything in between and a general vibe that crosses the easy listening of early rock and roll with the more intense instrumentals of 1980s glam metal.
That’s fine; it’s perfectly enjoyable. And with The Smithereens, you know what you’re getting. “2011” doesn’t try to change a formula that, in an era where even popular cult rock bands can’t afford to stay together, has worked for over a quarter of a century. The issue is that if you adhere too closely to that sound and message, it is hard to find variation not only between albums, but between tracks, too. Even if you listen to “2011” in a vacuum, away from past releases, there is a feeling of repetitiveness that sets in after listening to just a few songs.
That’s not to say that it is all the same. “Goodnight Goodbye,” for instance, is an acoustic recording that stands in contrast to the strongly played, fast-paced “What Went Wrong.” But one outlier does not make up for the heightened similarities of most of the tracks — it begs the question of why the group chose “Sorry” as its first single, since it is no better or worse in this regard than any other song on the record.
This is the ultimate problem: there’s nothing on “2011” that sets any of its tracks apart. Harken back, again, to the group’s formative days, and it’s easy to understand why “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” became one of The Smithereens’s earliest hits: it had multilayered, highly referential lyrics that, combined with well-placed instrumental intervals, created three and a half minutes of music that both rock nerds and casual listeners could enjoy. And yet, the ultimate topic was still the same as always: love, or in its case, unrequited love. There is simply not a comparable track on “2011.”
Complacency is a hard word to use, but it fits: outside of, perhaps, “Viennese Hangover,” which skirts the issue of love all together, the lyrics are a superficial look at the most intimate of concepts. If the group is going to be singularly focused on that one dynamic, it has to produce a deeper and more intricate expression of the idea.
“2011” is still a technically sound, suitable record. But its tracks feel like a regurgitation of past work, and it does little overall to advance the group’s musical foothold.