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Something new on the way from The Smithereens

Veteran New Jersey-bred band reunites with producer Don Dixon for studio album
Severo Jornacion overdubs a bass line during a Dec. 13 recording session for the upcoming Smithereens album, which is being produced by Don Dixon (left). (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Severo Jornacion overdubs a bass line during a Dec. 13 recording session for the upcoming Smithereens album, which is being produced by Don Dixon (left). (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

By Chris M. Junior

“Ring on her finger … ring on her finger … ring on her finger …”

Smithereens singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio is standing in front of a microphone, listening to a playback of a song through headphones and repeating the same four words over and over.

Seated on a small couch to DiNizio’s right is Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion, the band’s bassist. As Jornacion watches and listens, DiNizio sings the phrase a few more times, arms clasped behind his back as though the search for the right notes has him momentarily handcuffed. Soon Jornacion breaks his silence and adds his voice to the melodic mantra, while producer Don Dixon soaks it all in from the other side of the dimly lit room, patiently waiting to record their vocal overdubs.

This goes on for a few more rounds before Jornacion stands, adjusts his headphones and joins DiNizio at the microphone to take a shot at capturing a good take.

The song they’re working on, titled “Rings on Her Fingers,” is one of 14 contenders for the new Smithereens album. After years of cover-themed projects, concert collections and compilations, the veteran New Jersey-bred band is recording its first studio album of all-new material since “God Save The Smithereens,” which was released in 1999.

For the California-based Jornacion, who replaced retired bassist Mike Mesaros, these sessions mark his first all-original Smithereens album ever. The project got under way in summer 2010, he says, when DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken convened in New York for about three weeks to work on new material. Jornacion was quickly brought up to speed when he received a recording of the rough song ideas about a week before the entire band traveled in early October to Kernserville, N.C. That’s where The Smithereens recorded basic tracks with their longtime champion Dixon (who produced the band’s albums “Especially for You,” “Green Thoughts” and “A Date With The Smithereens”) at a studio called Fidelitorium, which is run by sometime Dixon collaborator Mitch Easter.

On this cold Monday night in mid-December, the scene is the living room at DiNizio’s home in Scotch Plains, N.J., where a second consecutive day of overdubs is in progress. The living room serves as the studio, and it feels even more cozy than usual thanks to the various guitars and basses that are taking up floor space and seating areas. Dixon’s makeshift workstation consists of a stack of recording equipment that’s about five feet high, and for a chair, he uses a silver road case that’s covered with a black cushion.

During a break in the action for some pizza, followed by a chocolate cake to celebrate Dixon’s 60th birthday, Jornacion stands in DiNizio’s kitchen, happy to talk about finally being part of an all-new Smithereens album.

“I’ve been waiting for this day ever since I started playing with the band,” says Jornacion, who became a full-time member of The Smithereens around late 2005/early 2006. “There hasn’t been any original stuff in a while, and I think everybody was chomping at the bit. Doing the cover albums was fine, but doing an album of original stuff with input from everybody [in the band] — there’s nothing like it.”

In terms of sound, Jornacion says the in-progress album harkens back to the first few Smithereens releases.

“I hear some really great echoes of a lot of ’60s bands,” he explains, “but it sounds very modern to me.”

The prospect of creating bass lines from scratch for an album of new Smithereens songs “was frightening, challenging and exciting at the same time.”

“I didn’t have enough time to really think in-depth about it,” Jornacion says. “Most of the bass parts on the new album are my first impressions, and everybody seemed to like them, so I think it was a good gut instinct.”

DiNizio is hard at work finishing lyrics, and the band still has more vocal and instrumental overdubs to record. The Smithereens expect to complete the album in early 2011 and release it during the spring, with a tour to follow.