After Weezer, power pop bands playing it simple had to be carefully examined for signs of triple-sec irony and rude condescension. The Ramones might have been exploiting a fictional persona, but the distinction between their being cretins and their pretending to be cretins never meant the brudders might be snidely laughing at their fans. The commercially calculating new breed, however, has carefully mapped and navigated the gaping hole between naïveté and the appearance of naïveté — hiding the Pope in the pizza by laying on the cheese, as it were. Does “I love my girlfriend” really mean that, or is it a sardonic comment on the wholesomeness of dubious sentiment and nostalgia? “Don’t get cute or sarcastic,” sayeth Elvis Costello. These days, a lot of bands defy both ends of that edict.
The Smoking Popes was formed in 1990 in Crystal Lake, Illinois, by two Caterer brothers, Josh (guitar, vocals) and Matt (bass), and a neighbor, drummer Mike Felumlee; guitarist Eli Caterer, the youngest of the siblings, joined the band in progress. Despite a few conflicting flashes (like the blas‚ “Let Them Die” and the coyly suggestive “Double Fisted Love”) on Get Fired, the short, shoddy indie debut is so earnestly witless that it actually might be sincere. The Popes chuck awkward turns into standard pop chord progressions, fleshing out their boppy, Magnolias-recalling tunes with roaring guitars behind Josh’s budding Vic Damone (by way of Morrissey) croon. Playing it rough but singing it sweet, the band puts dynamic tension into the cheerleading “Let’s Hear It for Love,” “Don’t Be Afraid” and “That’s Where I Come In” but winds up competing with itself.
Born to Quit, a 28-minute indie release reissued by a major, refines the Popes’ romantic innocence while mortising up the Ramonesy guitar wall and sublimating Josh’s deepening voice into a cross between Pat DiNizio and Morrissey. The production has barely graduated to second-rate, but the band’s skills are much improved, and the smoothly catchy songs (especially the gimmicky “Rubella,” the Beatlesque “My Lucky Day” and the amazingly Smiths-like “Need You Around”) go down like gumdrops. The band’s deadpan innocence is still unsettling (Brian Wilson was the last rock’n’roll songwriter to get away with anything like the sappy “Mrs. You and Me”), but sometimes a love song is just a love song.