Smoking Popes

This Is Only a Test

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Concept albums are notoriously risky, but to his credit, Smoking Popes bandleader and songwriter Josh Caterer picked a pretty easy concept around which to unite the band's first album of new material since 2008: the songs are all written through the eyes of a single teenager. While they deal with some predictable themes -- obsessive and unrequited love ("Wish We Were," "Diary of a Teen Tragedy"); ambivalence about the future ("College"); mono ("I've Got Mono"), and rock & roll itself ("Punk Band") -- Caterer addresses them with a refreshing lack of either eye-rolling or rhapsodic mystification. It's so easy and so tempting to condescend to our younger selves, and one index of Caterer's maturity as a person is his ability to create a character who sings "I don't want to go to collegeā€¦ I don't want to be another puppet of the Man" without making him sound like an idiot. An index of his maturity as a musician is his ability to write two songs about love-from-afar that demonstrate how thin the line can be that separates harmless longing ("We're not going out/I just wish we were") from potentially dangerous obsession ("I could hear a voice within me crying out/She's the one/She is your destiny"). Another indication of the band's musical maturity is, of course, the blend of smoothly crooning vocals and meat-and-potatoes, punk-inflected pop that has always been the hallmark of the Smoking Popes' sound and has only become tighter, richer, and more hook-wise over the years.

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