It’s finally here! It’s been 11 years since what was thought to be the Smoking Popes’ swan song and last original material, 1997’s sublime Destination Failure, an album whose popularity and influence seems to have exploded in the years after the band’s demise. I was happy to at least still have Josh Caterer’s voice as he continued on with Duvall, and despite a rotating cast, Duvall sounded practically identical to the late-`90s Popes with the only difference being a tasteful injection of his faith into the lyrics. In the March `06 Alternative Press, as interviewed by our very own alum Scott Heisel, Josh himself said "I never intended for there to be much of a distinction musically" in regards to Duvall. But even then we haven’t had any original material from them since 2003’s solid Volume & Density. When the Popes reunited in November `05 for Flower Booking’s 15th anniversary show and decided to continue on, I was super excited that Josh had concluded that singing old Popes songs could fall under ‘entertainment’ and not conflict with his beliefs. However, we still had 2½ years to wait with only that show’s live album to tide us over, but after label and release date confusion, Stay Down is really here.
It is great to have the whole Caterer crew back on board, though it is a shame they couldn’t work things out to have Mike Felumlee take part. Responsible for getting unreleased (the five-year-delayed Capitol Records contract-ending cover album The Party’s Over, which I rated a pinch high in my excitement) and hard-to-find Popes material to the fans with his now-defunct Double Zero Records, he gets the shaft with not being able to partake in the fun now.
Album drummer Ryan Chavez makes his presence known immediately on opener “Welcome to Janesville,” a tune that shows that the guys still have a bit of the punk speed left in them. Later in another quick one, “Maybe I’ll Stay,” it seems like he’s paying homage to Felumlee with lots of snare fills and cymbal crashes in the intro sections. Throughout the Popes’ existence they have cleaned up considerably, most likely due to growing as musicians (and Josh growing stronger in his vocal style), losing a touch of their punker roots and heading in a purer power-pop direction, though those couple tracks show they haven’t lost that inspiration completely. But speaking of power-pop, let me tell you, “If You Don’t Care” is where it’s at. It’s instantly addictive and in no time you’ll find yourself doing your best impression of Josh, crooning along with the ample choruses.
While Josh’s unique voice gets most of the credit for the band standing above the pack, Matt’s bass and Josh and Eli’s guitars are sneakily complicated for what some consider a pop-punk band, utilizing more than the standard I-IV-V chords. Have you ever learned a Smoking Popes song on guitar? Years back when one of my buddies showed me how to play “Star Struck One” I was surprised by the complicated chord progression. I’m guessing that the vocal melody comes first and the chords are chosen to fit around it, as opposed to a lot of bands that do the reverse. While I haven’t figured any of these new songs out yet, I’m positive they are just as inventive in their progressions without seeming complicated to the casual listener.
Faith aside, Josh is in a good place these days and doesn’t hesitate to tell the world. “Stefanie,” about his wife, is book ended with feedback, a powerful track with huge chords ringing over the slow snare cracks and a crunchy guitar solo midway through. One of his daughters gets a tune with the twinkling ballad “Little Jane-Marie,” featuring some adorable lyrics like "Perhaps we could split a thousand Cheerios," but never getting vomit-inducing. Maybe this happiness is behind the abundance of slower numbers: the piano-sprinkled and hopeful “It’s Never Too Late (For Love),” the touching “Into the Summer Sky” and the 6/8 sway of the title track. While at first I saw this as a downside, I realized all those tracks still have powerful sections and/or awesome solos and Josh’s always amazing melodies. The one lyrical downer would be “The Corner,” about the death of someone close (or perhaps from the view of a regretful killer? It’s hard to figure out the specifics here), with the likes of "I would unshoot every bullet one by one / ‘Til the killing came undone."
It’s like the Popes picked a finale just for me, with a new version of one of my all-time favorites “First Time,” from `92’s 2 EP, later collected on 1991-1998. They seem to have taken a cue from former Popes touring guitarist Tom Daily, whose raw acoustic version of the song was one of the strongest tracks on 2003's tribute record to the band. They also forego electric guitars and drum set and instead simplify to acoustics and shaker. There are some fancy guitar flourishes and tasty vocal harmonies in the chorus, though they get a tad cheesy with a vocal echo in the final chorus.
Arguably, Stay Down is a more diverse set than Destination Failure and perhaps as consistent in quality. While Stay Down doesn’t seem to have hits as mind-blowing as “Pretty Pathetic,” “Megan” and “I Know You Love Me”, those songs have a 10-year advantage. Yeah, this album is missing a cornerstone of the band’s previous life -- the breakup song (other than in their own cover) -- but you won’t miss them. The Popes return as strong as ever, and Stay Down is a must-have for fans new and old.