Obviously, this is something of a comparison between apples and oranges: we first heard the Beatles’ music on their own recordings, whose sounds are imprinted on our memories and are definitive. Our first encounters with, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony were through performances that, however spectacular, have no direct link to Beethoven himself. Yet Beethoven’s score of the work is a detailed blueprint of how he expected it to sound, and any performance will be governed by that, allowing for interpretive leeway that may be subtle or dramatic. A cover band, hoping to reproduce the original recording, has less flexibility.
But a new album by the Smithereens shows how much interpretive leeway a rock band can have even when it intends to perform faithful covers. The disc, “Meet the Smithereens!” (Koch), which comes out next week, reproduces the track lineup and, to a great degree, the original arrangements (at the original tempos and in the original keys) of the Beatles’ 1964 American breakthrough album, “Meet the Beatles!” But it does more: the 12 songs are filtered through the Smithereens’ own crunchy New Jersey bar-band sound, a quality likely to come through even more strongly when the band plays the album live at the B. B. King Blues Club and Grill tonight.
The Smithereens made their name playing their own material, but they have recorded Beatles songs before, and they have always had a soft spot for the concision and zest of British Invasion bands. So they approach this music as fans who know it intimately, but also as composers who know what makes a great song durable.
This is what I like about “Meet the Smithereens!”: it bridges the extremes of note-for-note fidelity and pure interpretation, offering the best of both worlds. The band has treated “Meet the Beatles!” as a symphony, a complete cultural artifact, to be heard intact. It barely matters that “Meet the Beatles!” was not quite the album the Beatles intended, but rather a compilation made by Capitol Records, using 9 of the 14 songs from the group’s British album “With the Beatles,” as well as three songs released as singles. For American listeners who discovered the Beatles at the time, as the Smithereens did, “Meet” has an emotional resonance that “With” does not.
The arrangements on “Meet the Smithereens!” have all the vibrant energy and directness of the originals, and even minor details like the keyboard glissandos in “Little Child” and the overdubbed handclaps on “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” are faithfully preserved.
Yet you wouldn’t mistake it for the Beatles, as you might with a tribute band. If Jim Babjak’s guitar solos follow the contours of George Harrison’s, they aren’t slavishly identical.
Good review, from a classical music reviewer who takes pop seriously. Looks like something worth checking out.
You can buy Meet the Smithereens here.
(And yes, in case you're curious, a certain bereted regular who frequently regrets his errors and has recently returned to his ancestral homeland of New Jersey, did in fact sit in with The Smithereens on drums.)