(As published in B-Side ... )
There's a lot to like about Chicago's Smoking Popes.
First, there's the name, a casually provocative moniker in a scene overrun with desperately overreaching ones. Second, there's the restraint: In a scene overrun with hour-plus CDs, the under-thirty-minute length of Born to Quit, the quartet's second album and first for Capitol, comes as sweet relief.
And, of course, there's the music, catchy garage pop that, like the band's name, doesn't so much push the envelope as delight in licking the stamp. Which stamp? Why, Elvis obviously. But which Elvis? The young, skinny one or the old, fat one?
"Elvis Costello,” says Josh Caterer, Smoking Popes’ lead singer and one of three Caterer brothers in the band. “I would say he’s my all-time favorite musician. His singing moves me more than any other singer's. And I like all his stuff, although I'm apparently one of the few people who do."
Caterer isn't kidding--he even likes Kojak Variety. But the real significance of his Costello worship lies in what it puts the lie to: namely, that Caterer’s tender tenor singing must betoken a Morrissey jones. It doesn't. It betokens a Rat Pack-era crooner jones--sort of.
"I do have a great affection for that kind of music and that kind of singing," he confesses, "but it's not any deeper than my affection for other kinds of music." Nevertheless, between his and his father's record collections, he has access to more crooner pop than the average up-and-coming twenty-something rocker. And since his signing to a major label, his access has improved.
"I have a ton of Frank Sinatra because we're on Capitol, and we, um, get all that stuff for free. My favorite one is At the Sands with Count Basie. But I also really enjoy Sinatra and the Sextette Live in Paris and In the Wee Small Hours.”
O.K., so he didn’t mention September of My Years or She Shot Me Down (probably because those were on Reprise). Still, Caterer’s no crooner dilettante. He can also go on about Mel Torme, Johnny Mathis, Nat "King" Cole ("although he's a little different from those other guys"), and Judy Garland.
"I really like Judy Garland, but sometimes her singing is so heavy that I can't listen to it because it affects me too profoundly, especially later Judy Garland, when she really started to belt. You can't really use Garland as background music. You just have to turn the lights down and get into it."
Speaking of turning down the lights and getting into it, a lot of Smoking Popes fans spent the summer of '95 doing just that as the band traveled the club circuit with Goo Goo Dolls and Australia's You Am I. But despite Josh's ready praise for both You Am I ("They're a great band") and the Goo Goo Dolls ("Everybody went crazy for those guys"), at least one reporter thought Smoking Popes stole the show.
"Capitol's Smoking Popes won the crowd over," wrote Reuter's Troy Augusto of the night the tour played Hollywood. "Josh Caterer sang his charming love songs with a graceful nonchalance, and his brothers Eli and Matt, guitarist and bassist, respectively, added gritty muscle...."
"Well," says Caterer, "you can never trust a review of a show because it depends too much on the mood of the reviewer and where he's sitting or standing."
So much for hubris. Actually, Caterer's refusal to admit that his band might've, well, "smoked" that night is characteristic of his soft-spoken humility in general. And since humility's a liberating thing, it enables him, his brothers, and their drummer, Mike Felumlee, to play their energetic, three-minute songs for both more and less than mere attitude.
For example, not since tin-eared baby boomers thought John Lennon was singing "The girl with colitis goes by" on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” has a band made a disease sound as embraceable as Smoking Popes do on "Rubella." Actually, it’s less an evocation of swelling glands than a love song for a girl with an embarrassing name. And it summarizes what the Caterers-Plus-One do best: support hummable melodies as crooned by Josh with hummable and slightly distorted power chords as strummed by Eli.
Perhaps the only thing the Popes do better is, in fact, smoke. "Let me see," says Caterer. "I've smoked for eight years now, since I was fifteen. We all smoke, although that would never been a requirement to get into the band."
One might expect Caterer to have an opinion about tobacco issues, like the irony of cigarettes becoming less and less legal at a time when the demand for marijuana legitimization has never been more bipartisan.
"I try not to have opinions about social moods in general," he says. "and I think I'm a happier person for it."
As the upbeat nature of Born to Quit's ten songs suggest, Smoking Popes take their happiness seriously, even though, as with their other unique qualities, Caterer downplays its significance.
"I just happened to be interested in writing non-pessimistic, romantic songs at the time we were doing that record. They seemed all right, so we thought we'd run with it as a kind of theme for the record. But we actually have enough songs to record another album, and most of them have a little bit more of a somber feel to them."
Yet "somber" by Smoking Popes standards will probably still come off fairly chipper. Could the roots of the Caterer's contentment lie in the fact that their band is largely a family affair?
"That could explain it. Obviously, I get along very well with my brothers, and we get along very well with our parents. We've had a relatively stable home life, and, you know, I'm sure that's helped."
Judging from the evidence on Born to Quit, it certainly hasn’t hurt.