They were here and then they were gone. And most of us who first heard the Smoking Popes in the early '90s hadn't even had a chance to co-op the word "emo" into our rock snob vocabulary. (The song "Need You Around" was swooning college girls before future Dashboard Confessional fans could spell their names.) But just as the band was hitting its stride, getting some MTV love and modern rock radio cred, lead singer Josh Caterer went and found religion.
Popes' drummer Mike Felumlee's Double Zero Records, nonetheless, is trying to resurrect the Popes' place in pop music history with a pair of March releases -- Tribute (you guessed it, a tribute album) and The Party's Over (the previously unreleased final Popes studio record). It's a worthy task to be sure, even if the timing seems a bit off. And while Tribute leaves a lot to be desired and raises some interesting questions about the nature of tribute albums (like how can the members of the original band record a tribute to themselves?), The Party's Over shows off what was so great, and what went so wrong, with the Smoking Popes.
Quick recap: The Smoking Popes formed in Crystal Lake, Illinois -- three brothers and a buddy -- and quickly gained acclaim for their mix of punk and power pop (think Morrissey meets the Sex Pistols, or fellow suburban punksters Screeching Weasel). When Capitol Records picked up the Popes and re-released their second album Born To Quit, they enjoyed modest radio success and MTV screen time. But while they developed a cult following of sorts, they derailed shortly after the release of Destination: Failure. In 1998, just after recording The Party's Over, the band called it quits.
Five years later, the leadoff track, "Seven Lonely Days", is quintessential Popes. A cover of a Patsy Cline penned tune that Jean Shepherd parlayed into one-hit country wonderdom, the song could easily have come off as a cheeky, "look-at-me-I'm-so-ironic" mess. But in the hands of Josh Caterer, the song feels reborn (no pun intended). When Caterer belts out "Seven hankies blue / I filled with my tears", you believe him. Behind crunchy guitars and a mid-tempo punk rhythm, it's still Caterer's lovable loser vocals that draw the listener in.
"The Party's Over", the album's fourth track, is wonderful for all its unintended irony but seems misplaced so early in the album. But the following track, the gospel standard "Farther Along", should serve as hope to long-suffering Popes fans that the Caterer brothers' new band Duvall might have life after all. Caterer's lonely, nasally vocals once again start us off but when the typical distorted Popes guitar enters after the first few bars, the song explodes. Maybe Jesus can rock.
There are other interesting choices here, including Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather". But while the Popes breathe fresh life into some of these standards, "Stormy Weather" is muddled mess that chugs on unmercifully. The last of the truly fun and energetic material is the band's take on Tom Jones' "I Wake Up Crying", a song that's lyrically perfect for emo (although emo's lasting contribution to popular music will likely not be its lyrical shrewdness).
But if you think finding God ruined the careers of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, then the last two songs on The Party's Over are sure to be disconcerting. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Carousel) trods along aimlessly and sounds out of place in the context of the Popes' career and the rest of the record. While Caterer's original lyrics were smart and melodic, "You'll Never Walk Alone" is forced and trite. They follow that up with equal misery on Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me", easily the weakest material in an otherwise good songwriter's catalogue. Of course, after the band's breakup and this hint at what's to come, it won't just be Caterer asking, "Why me, Lord?"
Still, the first half of the The Party's Over is a reminder of just how creative and talented a band the Popes were. Songs like "Seven Lonely Days" snuggle up the best of their original material quite comfortably. And uneven as it is, the record is a worthy epitaph to yet another band that went away far too soon.