Friday, June 20, 2008

Smoking Popes -- Stay Down (2008)

Smoking Popes -- Stay Down (Appeal)

A funny thing happened to the Smoking Popes while frontman Josh Caterer found Jesus, removed himself from music, got back into it with his fine Christian rock band Duvall, and finally reunited with brothers Eli (guitar) and Matt (bass) to get the Popes back together. They developed a whole new audience, due to a stray comment by Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba.

Carrabba noted in an interview that the Popes’ tune “Pretty Pathetic”, a reflective, and dare I say it, confessional ballad inspired his band’s music like no other song. Suddenly, emo kids picked up copies of the Popes second and final album for Capitol Records, the seemingly accurately titled Destination Failure.

Those kids not only got to hear that now classic song, they also got to hear how the Popes had gone from suburban pop-punkers with a singer who crooned so achingly, to a first class power pop band that incorporated classic song forms dating all the way back to Tin Pan Alley. Still with a singer who crooned so achingly.

This reunion album continues down Failure’s path. Josh’s vocals and timeless songwriting are the focus, as always. But let’s not discount the other things that make the Popes so special. The band has a sound, particularly a distinctive guitar tone, that puts a stamp on the Popes’ music and makes it easily identifiable, without even hearing Josh sing. This puts the Popes on par with great guitar pop bands like Cheap Trick (whom the band comes close to at times) and The Undertones.

Unlike those two bands, I’m not sure if the Popes have put out a dead on classic album. This effort doesn’t quite reach the loftiest heights, but listening to it, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before the Caterers (and drummer) come up with a masterpiece.

For the first six or seven songs, it seems like the band will get there. The album gets off to a cracking good start on the galloping “Welcome to Janesville”. While the song is full of rock vim and vigor, it has a bounce and loping stride that makes me think of a Michael Nesmith Monkees tune. Not a bad start at all.

The next song, “If You Don’t Care”, should assure everyone that Josh Caterer can still craft a massive hook. In fact, the song starts out with the ultra-melodic chorus, the guitars providing strong support to Josh’s singing, his voice relaxed and mildly intense at the same time. The song then contrasts that great hook with sweet mid-tempo verses. But it’s all about the hook and this song simply kills.

Speaking of killing, “The Corner” is a somber change-of-pace, with Josh singing the tale of man who’s haunted by his past. The ominous tone and the muted tempo are quite familiar. This is a genre piece and what makes it work is the absolute conviction of Josh’s voice.

Which is also why “First Time”, which is cut from the same cloth as “Pretty Pathetic”, is such an effective track. On this song, Josh strums an acoustic guitar and laments over the loss of his first true love. Much like “Pathetic”, the lyrics are so direct and innocent, this will either induce cringing or, particularly if you’re a teenager, be instantly be relatable: “she’ll probably never be again/as happy as I made her then/but then I’ll never really know for sure/will I?” The song is a combination of bitterness and that lost feeling one gets after being dumped by someone really special, and it’s well captured here.

This song stands in stark contrast with the joyful “Little Jane-Marie”, a paean to a baby girl. Here, Josh indulges in some childish lyrics, which is perfect for a song to a kid: “Perhaps we could split 1,000 Cheerios/or just sit around and suck our thumbs.” The song is so simple and so lovingly rendered. It’s the pop-punk “Isn’t She Lovely”, not that I’m aware of a lot of competition.

The songwriting flags just a bit on the second half of the disc, but not drastically. But this album holds it own with Destination Failure. Which means it’s truly a success.


Anonymous said...

Smoking Popes!!! I just found out today that this album is finally out. I am excited! Welcome to "Janesvile" is classic 'Popes.

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