Cover bands

Meet the Smithereens! and Pussy Cats
By BRETT MILANO  |  February 13, 2007

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LUST FOR LIFE: Meet the Smithereens! is more labor of love than career move.

It’s one thing to cover a Beatles or Harry Nilsson tune, another to cover a whole album. Anyone old enough to remember the 1978 fiasco that involved the Peter Frampton/Bee Gees butchering of Sgt. Pepper, for instance, would think twice before going near that one. But if Petra Haden can cover The Who Sell Out — solo — anything’s possible. Now we have the Smithereens and the Walkmen taking on whole albums with, respectively, Meet the Smithereens! (Koch) and Pussy Cats (Record Collection). The first, as the title suggests, re-creates the Beatles’ first American album, whereas the Walkmen try their hand at the drunken, post-Beatles epic that John Lennon produced for Harry Nilsson during a notorious “lost weekend” in 1974. Neither is a radical departure from the original, but they’re personal statements just the same, if only because each album reveals what resonates most about the Beatles and, indirectly, Lennon for the two bands: youthful exuberance on one hand, decadent debauchery on the other.

Youthful exuberance may seem a tall order for an outfit that’s been around for a quarter-century, especially since the Smithereens’ last two original albums (1994’s A Date with the Smithereens and 1998’s God Save the Smithereens) evinced a good deal of world-weariness. But Meet the Smithereens! is more labor of love than career move. They nail the mix of lust and joy of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and “It Won’t Be Long,” and that’s hardly as easy as it sounds. Yet as careful as they are to stick to the Beatles blueprint, they use the same double-fisted guitar attack that characterized their ’80s hits. The mix is the same, with acoustic guitars and raucous garage overdrive. And everything is heavy on melody, keyed to Pat DiNizio’s expressive vocals. Only one track, “Not a Second Time,” is notably more downcast than the original — they make it more a sad goodbye than a good-riddance. But Meet the Smithereens! is largely about the pleasure of remembering why you started a band in the first place.

Covering Nilsson’s Pussy Cats is trickier business because the album itself is such an oddity. The original was star-crossed from the start: Nilsson blew his voice out before the sessions and was warned by his doctor not to record. But he wanted to work with Lennon so badly that he kept that information secret. To back Nilsson, Lennon brought in drinking buddies Keith Moon and Jesse Ed Davis to trash their way through some rock oldies. But much of the album — including the rawest and best version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” ever recorded — comes from the heart of the hangover. The teary songs that Nilsson wrote for the album might have been hits if he’d played them straight — if he hadn’t, for example, stuck the line “You know I’ll miss you baby/I’ll miss the alimony too” into the break-up song “Don’t Forget Me.” But his emotions are messy and scattered, just like the album itself.

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