Short Cuts

-- Michael Yockel

Smoking Popes
Destination Failure

The whole notion of indie credibility is pretty silly at this point. But it's worth noting that Smoking Popes came of age in the Chicago punk scene, played garage shows for years, and released their debut on the ultracool Johann's Face imprint. Then a funny thing happened: Frontman Josh Caterer discovered his inner pop star. The result is a second record that rocks hard and eschews gimmickry but contains enough juicy riffs and creamy crooning to make young hearts go pitter-patter. Where else can you hear a cover of Anthony Newley's "Imagination" that bops along on bursts of chunky punk guitar? Or listen to lovesick rants such as "They Lied" and "Megan" while snapping your fingers? (Answer: nowhere.)

It's easy to get lost in the current glut of punk-popsters. But the Popes are impossible to forget -- from the syncopated drum lines of Mike Felumlee to the surprisingly textured leads of guitarist Eli Caterer to the swaying bass of Matt Caterer. Most astonishing is the vocal work of Josh Caterer, whose tenor is an instrument of soaring beauty. His songs are unabashed examinations of love and its discontents, bloody valentines along the lines of "Let's Hear It for Love," in which he exhorts "Let's hear it for heartbreak/Let's hear it for pain/Let's hear it for poison tears that wash your dreams down the drain."

Caterer's voice is so startling in this era of angst-driven screamers that it's impossible to think of a suitable comparison. Morrissey is the only one who comes close -- and, not surprisingly, he's an ardent fan of the Popes -- but whereas Morrissey's moping can get pretentious, Caterer's whining is balanced by whimsy. On "Pretty Pathetic," for instance, he sings the lines "I miss what we had/I need you so badly" over and over before murmuring "Why don't I just shut up?" At which point the song clatters to a halt.

Those listeners put off by an endorsement from Morrissey should note that the members of Green Day also gush about Smoking Popes and helped the band secure its major-label deal with Capitol. To draw praise from quarters that broad, they have to be doing something right. As Destination Failure's sixteen sterling tracks attest, Smoking Popes are doing plenty.

-- Steven Almond

The Verve
Urban Hymns
(Virgin Records America)

When the Verve appeared in 1992, neo-psychedelia seemed like a good idea. Especially this shaggy British band's version of it, which drew not from the op-art pop of Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints" but from the hallucinatory rock of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." The Verve made its first big noise in the U.S. with A Northern Soul (1995), a murky, druggy, and ambitious album. It had no focus whatsoever -- a not uncommon side effect of drugs and decadence, two of the band's favorite pastimes -- but it established the Verve as bona fide hippies at a time when Britpop, power-pop, and punk-pop composed the prevailing musical gestalt.

The band then broke up, leaving a rather small hole that was easily filled by Oasis' semi-Sixties pop sound. Now, two years later, the Verve has returned, only to find itself trying to beat Oasis at its own game.

Granted, the Verve is still the genuine article. Oasis' calculated pop songs sound as if they were written with a spreadsheet, but the Verve has passion and conviction on its side. Richard Ashcroft is the band's leading light: a skinny, intense, fiery-eyed frontman. On Urban Hymns, Ashcroft pretty much carries the rest of the anonymous group. The earnest groove of "The Rolling People," the dusky strains of "The Drugs Don't Work," and the lilting strings of the album's single, "Bittersweet Symphony," would feel fairly soulless without Ashcroft's earnest vocals.

But the Verve also possess some of the fatal flaws of psychedelia, namely wandering guitar solos, nodding melodies, and dippy lyrics ("Come alive with the rolling people/Don't ask why, we just go"). Aside from "Bittersweet Symphony," which is a transcendent piece of orchestral pop, the rest of Urban Hymns lacks originality. Ashcroft has his sights set on re-creating the unfettered spirit of '67, but he's come up with the same results as Oasis, the Black Crowes, and many others: a reasonable facsimile, but a facsimile nonetheless.

-- Rafer Guzman

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