Few bands have seen and done more but never got the recognition for it than the Smoking Popes. They were mainstays of the Chicago punk scene in the ‘90s, standing out thanks to Josh Caterer’s vocal style that drew from pop and vocal crooners, and touring with with everyone from Green Day and Rancid, to Jimmy Eat World, to even Morrissey, who described their album Born To Quit as “the most lovable thing [he’d] heard in years” (yes, really). But even with that solid-gold level of prestige under their belts, the Smoking Popes’ music hasn’t lasted as much as some of their contemporaries’; their single Need You Around got a significant boost from its feature on the Clueless soundtrack, but unfortunately, nothing beyond that has had that much staying power, even despite the band putting out multiple releases since their reunion in 2005.
And at this point, it’s not even worth hoping that Into The Agony will do much to change that, even if this is the first full-length featuring their full original lineup since 1998. But really, that’s fine; the Smoking Popes are well and truly a cult act, and they’ve been around for too long at this point for anything to change on that front. That said, at a time like now when there’s such a universal love and appreciation of melodic, heartfelt and overwhelmingly charming punk rock, there’s really no better time for the Smoking Popes to be rediscovered, especially when Into The Agony wholeheartedly proves that they’ve still got it after all this time.
It’s all incredibly simple stuff too, but it’s perhaps the great sense of innocence the Smoking Popes display that sees this album positivity bursting with likability. Aside from some Christian-rock overzealousness on Get Happy, Into The Agony relies on simple, heartfelt sentiments delivered by Caterer with almost childlike sincerity, throwing back to the warm, emotional explosion of Jimmy Eat World In its execution. There’s such an irresistible, lovestruck fuzziness to I Can Feel You and No Tomorrow Tonight, while the bemoaning of a relationship’s untimely end on Amanda My Love shines in its simplicity and poignancy. Even when taking a (very broad) look at the state of the world on Little Lump Of Coal and Melting America, it’s nowhere near scathing but the fact it’s so clearly coming from the perspective of someone who just wants things to be better has a lot of heart to it. Even if Caterer doesn’t have the most fantastic range or vocal presence ever, the fact that pretty much every line he delivers swells with heart-on-sleeve affability definitely makes up for it.
And of course, with an album like this, the reliance of sheer catchiness and weapons-grade hook-crafting is of the utmost importance, and the Smoking Popes are no slouches on that front either. It’s very much a case where the instrumentation is totally devoid of extraneous bells and whistles, but it does its job excellently enough anyway, pitting power-pop guitars and slight classic pop polish on the likes of When You Want Something and Wish I Didn’t Love You with an indie-punk grit that feels like just the right amount of volume and crunch that an album like this needs. There really doesn’t need to be anything more, and though not exactly mile-a-minute stuff, there’s such an overriding pleasantness that feels like it needs to be there.
Even if it may seem strange that the best description for a punk album – regardless of where it finds itself on the genre spectrum – is “pleasant”, but that’s not a backhanded compliment by any stretch. If anything, Into The Agony thrives off how utterly likable and unthreatening both it and the Smoking Popes themselves come across, packed with metric tonnes of heart and soul that nowadays has more of a place in punk than ever before. It would be nice if that could finally see the Smoking Popes get the attention they’ve really always deserved, but even if not, a pretty great album has come from it all the same.
For fans of: Jimmy Eat World, The Gaslight Anthem, The Menzingers
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Into The Agony’ by Smoking Popes is released on 12th October on Asian Man Records.