By J.R. Jones
When the Smoking Popes' second album, Born to Quit, was picked up by Capitol in 1995, I thought immediately back to 1965, when the same label was home to the Beatles and the Beach Boys--singer-songwriter Josh Caterer's hummable tunes and innocent love lyrics recalled nothing so much as the sunny, romantic pop of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. But Caterer himself, I later learned, was thinking back yet another decade, to the mid-50s, when the label was releasing Frank Sinatra's and Judy Garland's career-topping work. Both Born to Quit and its long-delayed follow-up, Destination Failure, find the Popes concocting something truly original: a peculiar and arresting blend of razor-edged punk and the pre-rock 'n' roll melody of classic American songwriters like Ray Henderson, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.
Although rock 'n' roll nudged it into the past, the great American songbook has surfaced periodically, sometimes as camp and sometimes as a legitimate musical legacy. In the mid-80s Linda Ronstadt struck pay dirt when she teamed with Sinatra's and Garland's arranger Nelson Riddle for a trio of albums, and soon after, Harry Connick Jr. emerged as a hunky revivalist, proving that young people could appreciate the old favorites. Caterer's hero Elvis Costello has come closest to pulling off standards in a rock context; even in his snotty youth he managed a textured cover of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," and when he was no longer punk he proved himself a worthy torchbearer with smoky ballads like "Almost Blue" and "Poisoned Rose."
But even Costello approaches the music with a formal respect. No one before Caterer had ever wedded the swing era's classic songcraft to punk's power chords and rock-solid beat. The two forms couldn't be more antagonistic: the great crooners were all romance, vocal nuance, and spit-shine professionalism, while punk feeds on alienation, raw power, and a defiant amateurishness. Like any marriage of opposites, the Popes' music produces moments of both startling empathy and hair-raising friction.
Few songs in the band's repertoire illustrate this conflict as clearly as "Need You Around," the Popes' calling card from Born to Quit. The vocals are pure torch, with appropriately overwrought lines like "I'm gonna feel this way till I'm six feet underground / Crazy as it sounds / I need you around." But Mike Felumlee's pounding drums and Eli Caterer's thrashing rhythm guitar are punk through and through. Josh Caterer came up with the melody while driving alone one afternoon. "I put the whole song together just by singing out loud in the car," he says. "I was picturing a string section behind it, actually, because at that time I was listening to a lot of Sinatra. So I came up with that melody with Sinatra's voice in my head. But then when I got home, I picked up my guitar and put the chords behind it, and that rhythm happened as a secondary thing." The sublime tension caused by stretching a moody, 16-bar melody across 32 bars of frenzied rock 'n' roll immediately distinguished "Need You Around" from the usual alterna-product.
But sometimes the two impulses subvert each other. After completing Destination Failure the band recruited Not Rebecca guitarist Tom Counihan so Caterer could concentrate on his crooning. At a recent Double Door show Caterer strummed an acoustic on one or two songs, but for most of the set he clung to the microphone. The absence of Caterer's guitar seemed to leave the Popes flat-footed, and showcasing his voice served mostly to reveal its limitations. His instrument is modest compared to Costello's--not to mention Sinatra's--and its ducklike timbre is exacerbated by a lack of vocal training. Costello has learned the breathing and microphone techniques, the vocal tremolo and vibrato that the old-time singers spent years perfecting. Caterer wings it, and by the end of the one-hour Double Door set his throat muscles were as tight as a drum.
Of course, in a band like the Smoking Popes, vocal warm-ups would be a joke. Punk thrives on the idea that anyone can be in a band, that formal training and music theory can only inhibit creativity. (When asked the key of his new song "I Know You Love Me," Caterer laughs and says a bit sheepishly that it's two frets above E.) Punk doesn't really respect vocal subtlety; while Riddle carefully crafted his arrangements to flatter Sinatra's singing, Big Black and Husker Du buried the vocals in the mix. And modern rock radio, which as major-label artists the Popes are obliged to crack, discourages the sort of dynamic range that allowed crooners to turn a pop song into a three-minute drama. Nowadays recordings are electronically compressed so that the volume level seldom varies, and if you notice that all your new CDs are pushing the LED into the red, it's because everyone wants his release to be as loud as the next guy's, lest any volume drop-off send a fickle listener scurrying to another station.
But if Caterer's vocal ambitions are mostly wishful thinking, his songwriting shows a gift for melody that can't be taught--or squashed by a recording engineer. Caterer needn't know his tune is in F-sharp for it to be a knockout; on Born to Quit he strides down Tin Pan Alley with indelible love songs like "Midnight Moon," "Mrs. You and Me," and "Lucky Day." The last is a modified version of the tune written by B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson for George White's Scandals of 1926 and later recorded for Capitol by a mature Judy Garland. The simple sentiment remains the same--fortune has smiled on me by putting you in my arms, baby--but Caterer's music, especially his keening, descending bridge, leaves the venerable original in the dust. Caterer has a knack for redeeming potentially sappy lyrics with deeply heartfelt melodies, a gift he shares with Arlen. Unlike the more urbane Rodgers, Porter, and Gershwin, Arlen never became a household name, but even a short list of his songs illustrates his vast contribution to popular music: "Get Happy," "Over the Rainbow," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," "When the Sun Comes Out," "I've Got the World on a String," and "Stormy Weather"--which the Smoking Popes recorded for Destination Failure but are saving for a later release.
On Destination Failure producer Jerry Finn has polished off the sort of rough edges that made Born to Quit extra charming, giving the new record a sleek finish so the Popes can compete with unit movers like Foo Fighters and Green Day. But even with this commercial constraint the band has broadened its sound. The new record does its share of ass kicking ("No More Smiles," "Capital Cristine," and the exhilarating "Before I'm Gone"), but the Popes also turn in a deft cover of "Pure Imagination," the lilting ballad Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, all decked out in sugary, chiming, double-tracked guitar arpeggios. "Paul" is a song of lost love whose dark lyrics recall Arlen and Ira Gershwin's masterpiece "The Man That Got Away": "Can you tell me where to find me? / Have you seen me hanging around? / I'm looking for myself each night till sunrise / The only thing I've found / Broken dream and a heart that's stuck to the ground." When Caterer's delicate picking gives way to pounding drums and guitars and Caterer belts out the anguished chorus ("She'll say 'I love you, Paul!'"), it's less a retread of the Nirvana formula than a revival of the crooners' passionate "outchoruses," when a singer like Garland would pull out all the stops and elevate a tune like "The Man That Got Away" to the level of high tragedy.
The current cocktail-nation craze and the resurgence of Vegas icons like Tom Jones might seem related to the Smoking Popes' crooner-inspired punk-pop, but in fact the two musical experiences are polar oppposites. Lounge music is an exercise in camp; its sniggering celebration of glitz and emotional bombast betrays the tired decadence of postpunk, postalternative rock. The Popes are after something far more positive: music and love are elemental forces, and the joys of either are readily accessible to anyone who isn't embarrassed by them. Reconnecting rock with real emotion was one of punk's original missions--and as the Smoking Popes prove with their noisy footnote to the great American songbook, the point of intersection might be called, for lack of a better name, the heart.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ band photo by Nitin Vadukul.