The Smithereens | The Lost Album (Sunset Blvd. Records)

The Smithereens are one of the unsung progenitors of the alt-rock revolution, and a power pop band par excellence. Though they had a number of hit singles, they’re mostly remembered today as a bit of a one-hit wonder because of the outsized success of their 1989 single “A Girl Like You,” and for being a favorite of Kurt Cobain, who listed the band’s 1986 debut Especially for You as one of his studio inspirations as Nirvana recorded Nevermind. Though the Smithereens inspired grunge’s breakthrough, they struggled to stay on the radio in its wake. The band kept touring and recording cover albums, but their 2011 album (titled, er, 2011) was their only album of new material in the 21st century, and after the 2017 death of Pat DiNizio—the band’s singer, guitarist, and one of the two primary songwriters—it seemed like it would be their last. That we now have one more album’s worth of previously unheard material from the original lineup, and that it was written and recorded when they were at the height of their powers, feels like a godsend.

The origin of The Lost Album lies in the aftermath of Blow Up, the band’s 1991 follow-up to their “A Girl Like You” breakthrough. The album saw the band moving even further from their Merseybeat-inspired power pop and toward the big crunchy guitars and impeccably slick production that made “A Girl Like You” such a smash. It also came out the same month as Nevermind. And, as AllMusic’s Jason Damas put it, “If there was ever a time for an alternative band to opt for a slicker sound, 1991 wasn’t it.” Blow Up sold a fraction of its predecessor’s numbers, and the band was dropped by Capitol. Now in label limbo, the Smithereens decamped to Crystal Sound Studios NYC in 1993 to record and self-produce an album they intended to self-release. When they later signed with RCA for 1994’s A Date with the Smithereens, they started from scratch with a whole new batch of songs, and the slate of songs recorded at Crystal Sound lay lost in a shoebox. Until now, that is.

As bassist Mike Mesaros puts it in the liner notes, “The Lost Album remains only 80 percent finished and rough mixed,” and is presented as it was left in 1993. But that doesn’t mean this sounds like rough demos—five albums into their career, the Smithereens (DiNizio, Mesaros, guitarist Jim Babjak, and drummer Dennis Diken) were a rock-solid unit, and these songs sound as “finished” as pretty much anything on, say, 1988’s Green Thoughts (my personal favorite in their discography). What it doesn’t sound like, though, is labored over. The 1993 Smithereens’ version of “finished” meant burnishing the songs in radio-pop polish to create that “slick,” reverb-heavy, late ‘80s sound that made the band so out-of-step with the zeitgeist of 1993. Playing fast and loose just to get the songs down and letting things stay a little rough around the edges actually does the band favors. With a little more grit in the guitars and DiNizio’s throaty voice singing a bit more live and in-the-moment, the album ends up sounding quite a bit like the Lemonheads. It’s a sound that suits the Smithereens well.

It helps, too, that the songs themselves move away from the radio-ready sound of “A Girl Like You” or Blow Up’s big single “Top of the Pops.” Opener “Out of This World” is the natural successor to that sound, a big, crunchy tune with Def Leppard guitar riffs and a snaky bass line from Mesaros. But unlike the albums that ended up seeing release at the time, it’s the one and only song that sounds like that. “Don’t Look Down” has a lilting melody and a nice chiming lead guitar line that plays like Peter Buck guesting with the Kinks. “A World Apart” is a great countrified weeper, an alcoholic’s lost love lament sung over a drunken jingle-jangle straight from the Gin Blossoms playbook. (This song shows what a perfect choice it is that Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms is one of several guest singers who fronts the band live since DiNizio’s passing.) The delightfully twisty lead guitar figure and vocal harmonies make “Face the World with Pride” a dead-ringer for the Beatles circa 1965.

Like many power pop bands (see also: Cheap Trick), DiNizio and Babjak can have their cheeky sides, and it’s the times when the pair try to get a little too cute with the lyrics (“Monkey Man,” “I’m Sexy”) that fall a little flat. “Stop Bringing Me Down” is also a bit of a drag, with a big, heavy, meat-and-potatoes guitar riff that plays a little like Core­-era Stone Temple Pilots; it’s plodding and, at almost six minutes, way too long. But those off moments are forgotten as the album comes in for a landing with “Love Runs Wild” and “All Through the Night,” two acoustic love songs that are wholly sincere and simply beautiful.

Many “lost” albums are wasting away at the bottom of a closet for a reason—there’s something about the songs that just wasn’t quite there yet. That isn’t the case here. The Lost Album is a strong set of songs, easily on par with the Smithereens’ very best. | Jason Green

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