Chicago’s Greatest Cancer Sticks

The very first festival I ever went to was the first Radio 104 Big Day Off in Hartford. It was advertised as “Ten Bands for Ten Bucks,” and the bill was kind of wild: Mostly female-centric acts (I know Letters to Cleo and Juliana Hatfield played, and I think Belly might have been there as well), plus the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (they hadn’t really broken yet, but were from Boston and were considered huge in New England), and the band who made the biggest impression on me that day: The Smoking Popes.

Hailing from Chicago, the Popes had just scored a radio hit with “Need You Around,” which first appeared on 1994’s Born To Quit but gained a bunch of attention when it showed up on the massively popular soundtrack to Clueless (a record that probably deserves it’s own column, considering how many careers it stroked). They were a pop-punk quartet whose singer, Josh Caterer, happened to have one of the coolest voices in rock, splitting the difference between Morrissey, Sinatra, and Ramone with his expansive nasal croon. The Popes vanished for a while, but they’ve reunited and are working on an album, and in the wake of a very well-received set at Lollapalooza, they played New York’s Bowery Ballroom last Friday.

Caterer’s voice hasn’t lost any of it’s tone or flair, and it floated nicely over favorites (including “Need You Around” at the number two slot in the set), but the band busted out a handful of new tunes that made me very excited for their new record. “Welcome to Janesville” (or it could have been “Welcome to Jamesville” — if there’s one thing this column’s not about, it’s accuracy) is a snappy three-chord jump, while “If You Don’t Care” has a lovely, dreamy, lilting melody. But the most promising track is “Stay Down,” a phenomenally anthemic, smoldering ballad that captures the band’s gift for melody as well as their sweetness. The chorus is so wonderfully massive, you could probably fly a jumbo jet through it, and I cannot get over the doe-eyed sentiment of the lyric: “Don’t wake me now / I need this dream to last forever / We can make it if we just stay down.” I think I even heard a swoon come out of the Husky Gentleman, who was also at the show.

The Smoking Popes belong to a movement from around 1995 that my friend Zack likes to refer to as the “hard jangle era,” when bands like Fountains of Wayne, Belly, and others got famous by making shimmery pop that had a bit more guts at it’s core (the definitive hard jangle band is probably Gin Blossoms, or Weezer). I look to the newly reborn Smoking Popes to bring the jangle back.

Talk: Will you be swooning to new tunes from the Smoking Popes? COMMENT

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