Smoking Popes

Destination Failure

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To call Smoking Popes merely pop-punk would be a grotesque disservice -- they've been excelling at it for years. The problem is the image such a description (or genre name) conjures: a mediocre group who plays a fifth as well as the bands who founded punk in the '70s, with lyrics that are dim-witted, simplistic, dull, or immature, and tunes that are stiff, forced, and/or plain. We hold these truths to be self-evident, especially since Descendents re-formed to disrobe all the new, shabby pretenders, and to remind us of the melodious glory the genre used to radiate. As for this actually "smoking" Chicago quartet, they not only avoid such pitfalls, they humbly offer a singular style that is actually power pop in the early-'70s and early-'80s tradition -- from the young Todd Rundgren to the Fabulous Poodles. And with earlier efforts, such as 1994's Born to Quit on the little Johan's Face label (here's a rare band that has greatly improved on a major), these likable pontiffs have an earnestness and wound-licking vulnerability to match Descendents' Auckerman, without Milo's more bawdy edges. With a singer in Josh Caterer who can make the most melancholic, fretting passage seem like a whistling, carefree, Willie Wonka-kissed day (and who still sounds like a cross between XTC's Andy Partridge and Gilbert O'Sullivan) and a band who is gleeful, but not in a churlish-youthful way, Smoking Popes are one of the most deceptively pleasant-sounding bands going. So much so that their bite has to sneak up on you. And with such undeniably delicious and catchy fare as "No More Smiles," it's as easy to root for these folks in the difficulties their words pose as it is to continuously play their records.

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