- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

”We’ve never been particularly hip. We’ve kind of succeeded in spite of everything,” says Smithereens frontman Pat DiNizio from his home in Scotch Plains, N.J. The veteran power-pop quartet hits the State Theatre in Falls Church on Saturday.

He’s partly right: the Smithereens were retro even in 1979, when Mr. DiNizio’s ad for musicians was answered by some childhood friends who had “literally learned to play their instruments together rehearsing in the garage,” and who loved Buddy Holly, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello.

“The four of us individually were fanatical record collectors and pop-music fans,” he says, citing other influences, including the Beatles, the Byrds and various British Invasion bands. It was a far cry from the “arena-rock bands and fake Springsteen imitators” then popular in north Jersey.

The merger of Mr. DiNizio’s morose monotone and earnest lyrics with the band’s heavy-jangly sound hit its peak on 1989’s gold album “Smithereens 11.” If Buddy Holly’s Crickets had used power chords and a 12-string guitar, they might have come up with “Yesterday Girl” or “Blues Before and After.” One of several ‘60s homages pops up on “Baby Be Good” in a borrowing from Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Wanna Be With You.”

The big single “A Girl Like You” originally was written for the Cameron Crowe film “Say Anything” but eventually was not used. (The popular shout-out line “London, Washington/Anywhere you are I’ll run” refers to the film’s opening and closing locations in Seattle and London.)

Mr. DiNizio isn’t bitter that grunge pushed pop off the charts, and he even calls the Smithereens sound the “progenitor of grunge.”

“Butch Vig, who produced (Nirvana’s) “Nevermind,” told me that while they were recording ‘Nevermind,’ they were listening to ‘11’ and (1988’s) ‘Green Thoughts’ nonstop,” he says.

As for the future: “I can’t say we’ve done our ‘White Album.’ … I’d like to do something on that scale, you know, and give people real value for their money,” he says wryly, alluding to the Beatles’ 1968 album.

In the meantime, they keep playing their songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s while starting on a new album this spring. “We do the songs faithfully, the way they were originally recorded or played live,” Mr. DiNizio says.

“You’ll see three 19-year-old skinny guys standing in front of the stage with their arms folded staring at you without emotion studying this far-out old relic. And then they’ll come up after the show and go: “Dude, that was really … great. My dad used to play me your records when I was a kid. I never thought I’d get to see you play live.”

“It’s not important for me just to be funny; I want to perform well and sound good and write good songs, too,” says Stephen Lynch, who multitasks Saturday at the Warner Theatre.

At first glance, he seems a typical singer-songwriter, though with remarkably sensitive guitar strumming and hushed vocals. Then his lyrics kick in, and it inevitably nose-dives into something riotously un-PC, as demonstrated on his first DVD, “Live at the El Rey” (Razor and Tie).

“Grandfather” is a sensitive ballad that gets more aggressive as Mr. Lynch grows impatient for his inheritance (“I love you to death/But I’ve got bills to pay”), then morphs into a gorgeous soft ending, perhaps to assuage the listener’s guilt at laughing so much. “Baby” even has a semi-upbeat lyrical ending (“Now this one we can keep”) to counteract the preceding groaners.

Mr. Lynch’s blend of music and comedy begs comparisons to Tenacious D or his idols in Spinal Tap, but whereas those acts spoof hard rock, Mr. Lynch sticks with his acoustic guitar — although, like their songs, most of his (fortunately) aren’t meant to be taken seriously.

“Craig” is about Jesus’ party-animal brother who turns water into “cold Coors Light.” Although Mr. Lynch calls it merely a twist on “sibling rivalry,” his final rant provides some angst as well as laughs.

An older song, “Jim Henson’s Dead,” provides a few “Sesame Street”-based laughs, but mostly it ends up a heartfelt elegy to the Muppet master. “That was kind of a one-off,” he says. “I mean, I’ve tried before [to write seriously], but I’ve always failed miserably. That was the one time I got it right, I guess. Maybe I should try that again.”

And like any good singer-songwriter, he’s a fan of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. So is he a serious musician, then?

“I think I am, actually. I just happen to sing funny songs. I take the music as seriously as the comedy, if that makes any sense.”

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