Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Smoking Popes - "Stay Down"

On June 7, the Smoking Popes played a record release show at Chicago's Metro for its new album, "Stay Down."
It's been 11 years since the Smoking Popes recorded anything new in the studio. Eleven years. When I compare Josh Caterer's voice from "Destination Failure" to "Stay Down," it's like I'm going through a time warp. It's really, really hard to imagine 11 years passing between the albums. Put over a decade past any other band and the change in voice and sound would be drastic. Sure, the Popes have mellowed out a bit since the early '90s material, but some would argue that they've always been pretty mellow to begin with.

"Stay Down" opens with a song about a girl named Jane from Janesville, WI. She wants to escape the town, but will never be able to because her name, permanent, will always remind her of it. I thought it was pretty silly, but in a sad way. I ended up feeling bad for Jane.
"No matter how many ways you try to kiss this place goodbye/It lives in you till the day you die, say the words with a tear in your eye/Welcome to Janesville."
The next track, "If You Don't Care," is among the best couple on the album. Josh and his brothers jump right back into that familiar "Smoking Popes mindset" of love and all its uncertainties backed by beautiful, yet catchy, instrumentals.
"Employing a few choice words/We flutter like captive birds, finally free but still afraid to fly."
Josh's analogy of humans to birds is nice, but when you think about a couple of baby birds afraid to take flight, and remember he's talking about himself and a girl afraid to take off into the unknown vortex that is love, something hits like an ice pick to the chest.
It's one of those passages where you sit back and say, "Yeah! Yeah, I know exactly how that feels! That's a tough fuckin' choice and a thin fuckin' line to make a decision on!" Some musicians seem have a great way of exploiting that feeling. Josh Caterer is among them.

Have you ever tried to play a 45rpm record set on 33? I get that feeling when "Stefanie" starts up. It's a great song, but it drags out. However, the great part about this song is that it serves as an early break in the album. Instead of getting a bunch of momentum and halting it halfway through, the slow and steady "Stefanie" is placed after tracks one and two, building anticipation for the remainder of the album.

At first, I thought "Little Jane-Marie" was a song about a girl, and it is. But I thought it was about the relationship kind of girl.
Little Jane-Marie is a heartfelt song about what I can only assume is his daughter. It really takes you back to about first grade when Josh paints a picture of cotton ball clouds and Styrofoam planets with his voice.
"Oh, I'm alive again whenever I hold you in my arms/Oh, I'm a child again just like you are, my sweet little Jane-Marie."
You know, as rarely as I let the word "cute" out from it's cage, I'm going to here.

"Grab Your Heart and Run" is hands down the best track. It is really, really catchy, fun and reminiscent of the Smoking Popes' older material. What makes it the best track is going through that time warp, though. It could have been written and recorded years ago. Just like a fine wine, aging slowly, not caring about time's wrinkling effect as it develops into the perfect product possible.
I wouldn't have known the difference.
It's a song about being so determined to take a girl's heart for one's own. It's almost like robbery, but in a good way. It reminds me of postive graffiti. Do you erase graffiti that says "Unity" between rival territory, or do you leave it? It's a dilemma. Here, is stealing one's heart wrong? Too controlling on the thief's behalf? Maybe, but definitely in a justifiable way.
It has good feeling behind it. It's stable, determined, positive and definite. He knows what he wants and he's going to get it. It doesn't seem as if any bad can come of his snatch-and-run plan.

Following "Grab Your Heart and Run" is "It's Never Too Late (For Love)," where the album slows back down a bit. It's a hopeful song for the loveless and the doubters of the overpowering emotion. He sings about how all the nights spent alone with the rain are not nights spent in vain. He sings about how love is in front of all of us all the time. He basically says, all you have to do is open your eyes to see it. It's a great song, even if it sounds a little too idealistic for the still-pessimistic-but-still-want-to-be romantics.
"Somewhere waiting only for you is the one you've been dreaming of/Deep down you have got to believe that its never too late for love."
It's all building towards something in a sense, and he urges us to keep that spark of potential true love alive within us and to not give up on it. Sixteen years old or 90, male or female, this song's message applies to everyone.

The final thing way worthy of mention is the revamping of "First Time." The album closes with an acoustic version of the song, which was originally placed in the middle of the band's "1991-1998" album.
It's a sincere, painful yet positively heartfelt closing tune to "Stay Down."
It's words are raw, real and so gut-wrenchingly easy to empathize with for those who have loved and lost, it kind of hurts the chest cavity to think about.
"It's just the thought of another arm around her shoulder where my arm used to rest so comfortably/She'll probably never be again as happy as I made her then/But then I'll never really know for sure, will I?"
At first, it's like, "Poor Josh. That really sucks." But then you apply it to your past or present life and your heart skips a beat.
And then it's like, "Shit. This could happen to me."
Even so, the album doesn't lose it's tone of positivity, overcoming and pulling through. Instead of being 100 percent down, he stands up to his emotions (or even demons) and he acknowledges them by saying, "There's nothing like the first time, you fall in love so strong/At least this is the last time I will ever say so long to my first time."
If I was a hotshot magazine with a militant and definitive star-rating system, this album would capture them all. No buts about it. The lyrics are incredible and heartfelt. The music is strongly and passionately played.
The Smoking Popes have really made a triumphant comeback with "Stay Down." I cannot muster up and spit shine enough positive adjectives to describe how truly great this album is.

1 comment:

kate in nyc said...

hey, thanks. i've been looking for the song "first time" for about 15 years. a friend of the band put a bunch of their demo stuff on a tape for me in the mid-90s, and then i never saw that song--what my friends and i called "the saddest punk song ever"--on a CD. i kept my eye out, but i missed the 91-98 record. i'll eventually pick it up (it's pricey now, out of print), but i just downloaded the acoustic version on itunes. i haven't heard it, except in my head, in probably a decade. and it's still that freaking good. thanks for hooking a girl up.