The Smoking Popes‘ new album, “This Is Only a Test,” looks at life from the perspective rock ‘n’ roll sees most clearly — that of a teenager. The songs are quick, hard-riffing examinations of molehill moments that loom like mountains. Singer-songwriter Josh Caterer bemoans missing a concert because “I’ve Got Mono.” He whines about not wanting to go to “College,” about wanting only to join a “Punk Band.” As he does best, he boils down romantic angst into heartbreaking little epiphanies, asking in “Excuse Me, Coach,” “How can I run a mile with a broken heart? … How can I do another pushup now when everything I care about just said goodbye?”
The Chicago band’s latest homecoming set, Sunday night at the Double Door after a tour of recently ignored fan bases on the West Coast, was a reminder that this talent of Caterer’s is not new.
He turns 39 this month, but when you hear the new songs slotted among the old it’s clear that his language might have become more literal for a teen audience on “This Is Only a Test” but his heart has always been beating pure pubescence. “Just broke up with my girlfriend,” he wailed again Sunday night, followed shortly by the band’s pep-rally fight song, “Let’s Hear It for Love.” “Need You Around,” “Gotta Know Right Now,” “Writing a Letter,” on and on through the set — these are songs that speak of love at any age, but their gut-wrenching yearning is rooted in the wonder years. (As XTC observed, “You may leave school, but it never leaves you.“)
Much of Sunday’s set was drawn from the band’s own wondrous years, albums such as “Born to Quit” (1995) and “Destination Failure” (1997). The Popes may no longer be spring chicks — this is the “Family Guy” of bands, nixed in 1999, revived in 2005, now three albums into its second life — but the band of mostly brothers, who started playing during their own high school days in Lake in the Hills, frequently looks it. Basisst Matt Caterer scissor-kicked more than once, drummer Neil Hennessy (the Lawrence Arms) added sprightly fills (especially during “Rubella”) and guitarist Eli Caterer’s excitement was still so fresh he seemed to be taking cell-phone photos of the ecstatic crowd. Showing their capability for broader dynamics, the Popes swung easily through the slower, more mature and more rhythmically complex “Double-Fisted Love” (three guitar solos!), but Josh was clearly more excited about the next song, pogoing into “Pictures of You” and finishing it off with a windmill. Kid at heart, and may he stay forever young.
Want to relive the Popes glory days some more? The band’s first two albums, the out-of-print “Get Fired” and “Born to Quit,” allegedly still will be reissued this year on Asian Man Records.
Photo of Josh Caterer above by Katie Hovland