The Smoking Popes mark their triumphant return with one pretty fantastic live album. Reunions rarely feel so vital.
Broken up since 1998, Smoking Popes were one of those bands that commanded a very active, strong, and devoted audience, one in which the vast majority of its constituents entered their relationships with the band via the homogenizing pull of modern rock radio, ultimately finding the smooth and pleasant croon of lead vocalist and songwriter Josh Caterer too magnetic to resist. After releasing a few independent EPs, getting signed to a major (Capitol), and battling some of the requisite problems that come with major label success, Caterer found Jesus (thanks in part to a drug overdose) and broke up the band. It wasn't so much that he was a suddenly Christian man trying to play in a band called Smoking Popes, it was more a matter of the fact that Smoking Popes was a band that liked to play loud, fun, ultimately inconsequential songs about relationships. Caterer had weightier things to write about, things that eventually found their outlet in the form of a new band called Duvall, which happened to feature Josh's brother and Popes alumnus Eli, ultimately resulting in something that sounded like the CCR version of Smoking Popes. This was nice and all, but it sure didn't command the audience that the Popes did.
A mere two years after Duvall's full-length debut (and one year after Duvall's Christmas album), Caterer apparently reconciled the conflicting voices in his head and decided it was okay to sing silly little songs about relationships again, perhaps given that most of those songs ended up being about the woman who eventually became his wife. It's amazing how much easier revisiting the painful times can be when they lead to a happy ending.
As such, At Metro is the document of Smoking Popes' triumphant return, their first show in seven years, at Chicago's Metro on November 11th of last year. Perhaps it's a function of the fact that Josh and Eli Caterer never really stopped playing together, but the sound of At Metro is not that of a band that hasn't played together in ages; rather, these are seasoned vets, the types for whom playing together comes naturally to the point of instinctual. That is, they sound good.
There's a ton of energy to be found in these 23 songs (four of which can only be found on the DVD that accompanies the release), the guitars are loud, Josh Caterer is in tune and sounds joyful even as he sings songs of longing and regret, and the band is straight up tight. All of the hits are here, including the one that threatened for a brief moment in the mid-'90s to make Smoking Popes a household name, the excellent "Need You Around". Caterer's lounge-crooner voice is in full effect on that particular song, employing a vibrato on the verses that many of the songs on At Metro could have benefited from. Destination Failure standout "I Know You Love Me" is a fantastic choice for the first encore, as well. Fan favorites like "Don't Be Afraid" and show closer "Brand New Hairstyle", from the band's first EP, make the list as well, and songs like the DVD-only "Pure Imagination" (itself a sort of Smoking Popes "Over the Rainbow") show just the kind of emotion the band is capable of.
Speaking of which, the DVD's live performance of "Pretty Pathetic" is a display of just how influential Smoking Popes managed to be -- the full-audience singalong that accompanies Caterer's solo performance of the first half of the song is more than a little bit reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional's MTV Unplugged turn, minus the pretty eyebrows. That's right, Smoking Popes were emo before emo was emo.
There is a problem with the vast majority of At Metro, however -- the audio mix is all wrong. Specifically, there is one thing that sets the sound of Smoking Popes apart from the other pop-punk bands of the last ten years, and that one thing is the voice of Josh Caterer. Whoever chose to hide his lovely vocals behind the guitars for the majority of At Metro should be seriously reprimanded. A little bit more push to the vocal mix and we could have had a classic live album on our hands.
As it stands, At Metro is a pretty good live album. It kicks out the jams that Smoking Popes fans are guaranteed to love, with a flawless combination of little-known treats and big hits. That show at Metro was a perfect display of a band ready to take on the world once again, putting the turbulence of the past behind it (there's not a single Duvall track here to remind us that the Smoking Popes had ever broken up at all) and focusing on the songs that made that band great and the future it might have together. At Metro captures that moment as well as could be expected, and despite the often questionable mixing job, no Popes fan should be without it. I'll admit -- I didn't really miss Smoking Popes when they were gone, as they never left all that much of an impression on me when they were around. After listening to At Metro, however, I'm surprisingly glad they're back.