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Smoking Popes’ “This Is Only a Test” Strikes Chord with Troubled Youth

Chicago-based pop-punk band Smoking Popes is not a household name. But that, of course, depends on which house you’re in. Walk through my front door and I’d ask you to sit for a beer and we’d talk for no less than 45 minutes about how the Popes’ 1998 album Destination Failure reached me on a very real level with its literal interpretation of heartbreak, the muted, distorted guitar being perfectly accented by Josh Caterer’s pained, quirky vocals. Walk into my next-door neighbor’s house and say Smoking Popes and they’d probably just think you were soliciting bizarre religious paraphernalia.

The Smoking Popes got cute with their fifth album of originals- titled This Is Only a Test- and attempted a concept album. The concept being that the songs are sung from the perspective of a troubled yet earnest adolescent boy, struggling with ideas of suicide, unrequited love, and the burdensome expectation of preparing for a career. It’s as predictable as it is enjoyable.

Josh Caterer, along with his brothers Eli (guitar) and Matt (bass) and non-brother Neil Hennessy (drums) put forth an effort that should satiate longtime fans while also being accessible to a younger generation with its emphasis on themes that hit home with just about any youth who doesn’t fit into the prom king or queen mold. This resonates especially well in an age where bullying in schools is being so heavily targeted.

A song to listen for is the ballad “College” which tells the story of a high school student defiantly choosing to opt out of life as a corporate drone. The use of piano is new territory for the usual guitar-heavy Popes, but Josh Caterer’s voice translates nicely to the keys, the instrumentation showcasing the maturation in his songwriting.

Ultimately, hearing a man in his late 30s sing about passing his dream girl in the hallway can be a bit unsettling. But when the writing is good, this is easily pardonable. 

Grade: B

-Joe DeProspero

Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” Might Make You Wish It Would

In the late 90s/early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear a conversation between two teenage girls in a record store, or even grocery store, debating whether Christina or Britney was the “better” singer. The word “better” has proven to be quite relative over time, but even the most biased of Britney fans would probably tell you that Aguilera has established herself as the more naturally talented vocalist by a comfortable mile since then. This all means very little to our temporal lobes, though, and likely means even less to Britney Spears, who seems perfectly content relying on generous vocal processors, synthesizers and seasoned producers who know to work to her strengths and hide her weaknesses. What are her strengths? Well, no one knows for sure. We just know she’s a cash cow.

With her newest single, Till the World Ends, Spears combines elements of techno and trance which is sure to satiate any dance-hungry crowd. Music purists? Well they’re bound to hate this as much as anything Spears has done. To no one’s surprise, Spears pleads for listeners to “keep on dancing till the world ends” and I’m sure Jive Records executuves echo those words wholeheartedly. The chorus of the song consists solely of the word “Woah” which is repeated ad-nauseam and electronically manipulated, of course, to prompt droves of inebriated dance floor residents to erupt in a massive group shout-along, culiminating in one universal auditory joygasm. Or, put another way, it’s catchy enough to make drunk people pump their fists and sing. Leave the substantive dance music to Earth, Wind, and Fire, I suppose.

A far cry from the singer who once innocently crooned, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman,” Britney Spears of 2011 wants to be the sexy whisper reverberating through a crowded dance club, not the long-distance dedication on a Lite FM station. Or at least that’s what her collective beneficiaries want her to be.

In short, Till the World Ends plays it relatively safe. It delivers the sultry, breathy Britney that has become her calling card, and offers just enough melody to justify passively supporting her latest comeback effort, which will almost undoubtedly end with liberal weight gain and a tear-jerking Barbara Walters special.

Grade: C+

-Joe DeProspero

Sexsmith True to Self, Fans On “Long Player Late Bloomer”

Elvis Costello has compared Ron Sexsmith’s gift of melody to that of Paul McCartney’s. Such comparisons have not led to commercial success in the United States, but this native of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada continues to churn out heartfelt folk-pop that, while not breaking sales records, is critically-acclaimed just the same. On his latest, Long Player Late Bloomer, Sexsmith sounds more polished than ever before. His distinctive, froggy vocals are richer and fuller, the choruses are more pronounced with layered melodies and piano is the central instrument more often than not.

A song to listen for is the skeptical “Believe It When I See It,” which showcases Sexsmith’s remarkably keen melodic sensibility as well as his intrinsic ability to transition from folk to pop music without blinking. Sexsmith himself has stated “I want to write songs that are good whether I’m singing them or not.” His song “Secret Heart” has been covered numerous times by notable artists- specifically Rod Stewart, John Legend, and Feist, which would certainly lend itself to this desire. Additionally, the title track off his latest album, “Late Bloomer” would likely be a radio hit in the United States had a vastly popular artist such as, say, Five for Fighting were releasing it. Still, despite the lack of commercial popularity, Sexsmith continues to record music that is eclectic, convincing and appealing to varied musical appetites. Long Player Late Bloomer may not have fully captured the pop-infused magic that the 2004 album Retriever did, but it still succeeds in being earnestly engaging and intimate in a way that no artist can fake.

The recently released documentary film Love Shines follows Sexsmith in his journey to achieve mainstream success with this album by working with noted producer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Metallica).

Grade: B+

-Joe DeProspero

Adele’s “21” A Near Perfect Ten

Fresh off of her eye-opening debut that included the wildly popular hit “Chasing Pavements” comes this second effort from Adele. And while this may be her sophomore album, sophomoric it is not. In fact, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter from London sounds more akin to a veteran songstress as her voice oozes soul and speaks of a pained history on her latest album, 21. Adele describes her own music as “heartbroken soul” and it is certainly that. It is also gimmick-less in a scene filled with painted faces and sensationalized drug addictions.

Named 21 to signify a maturation since her first album 19, this record comes across as a softer, more intimate Amy Winehouse production.  The fact that it was produced by the masterful Rick Rubin certainly doesn’t hurt. Seamlessly crossing over genres, the song  “Don’t You Remember” feels rooted in country and there’s more than a hint of R&B in “He Won’t Go,” which draws comparisons in style and tone to Alicia Keys. The first single off the album, “Rolling in the Deep” is formulaic without ever being uninteresting and carries a pop sensibility that is accessible to the pedestrian listener without sacrificing integrity. Assuming that the cliched expression “it takes a lot of rain to get the rainbow” is true, this piece of work stands proudly as one giant, triumphant rainbow, with every painstaking memory being expunged note by note.

A song to listen for should be the post-relationship ballad “Someone Like You,” which sees Adele at her emotive best, her vocal power perfectly accenting the melodies as piano and voice swell in the chorus to create a moment that is poignantly bone-chilling. Her misery is our joy.

Put simply, Adele’s 21 should be an early contender for Album of the Year considerations.

Grade:  A

-Joe DeProspero

Cake’s “Showroom of Compassion” Leaves No Room for Error

The kick drum and bass guitar sound like one harmonious instrument as they pulsate in unison through your iPod headphones, rattling your ear lobes. Vocalist John McCrea half talks and half sings his way through a verse as gang vocals accompany him by determinedly repeating choice three-word phrases, exaggeratingly annunciating each syllable. The ever present vibraslap emits a rattlesnake-like noise strategically placed to accent the instrumentation. A funk-infused guitar riff and punchy horn line have successfully snuck into and set up permanent camp in your medulla oblongata as you eagerly anticipate more of the same on Track #2. Now, was this A) Nine years ago while listening to the hit single “Short Skirt / Long Jacket” B) Last month while listening to their latest single “Sick of You” or C) All of the above. I think you see where this is going.

With their latest release “Showroom of Compassion,” Cake proves the old theory that if something’s not broken, why fix it? Still not taking themselves too seriously, in the lone verse of the song “Italian Guy,” McCrea subtly mocks those who do take themselves seriously by speaking of his harsh, squinted eyes and the pounding of his cane on the floor. Love songs like “Long Time” are cleverly disguised behind the unmistakable head-nodding funk-rock flow and wailing trumpet that the band has relied on heavily throughout their career.  

Ultimately, Showroom gives Cake fans exactly what they’ve come to expect and doesn’t change the recipe. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

-Joe DeProspero

Rain- A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway: Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Hide?

I grew up a Beatles fan. Didn’t everyone? I mean, it feels like saying, “I love pizza” or even “I enjoy a beautiful sunset.” It feels so incredibly generic, but at the same time necessary to announce for the simple reason that it’s part of who I am. It’s also something I’m proud to admit. I was born to two musically-inclined parents. My father played piano and jazz organ and my mother guitar. While inheriting their respective tempers, I also was fortunate enough to inherit their passion for music in its various forms- performing it and consuming it. On car rides to my speech therapy class at age 6, my father would dutifully play 101.1 CBS FM, which I embraced as it served as a more accessible alternative to his lyric-less jazz station. I found myself humming along to the stars of the 60s, imagining my father doing the same the first time he’d heard these songs, lying on his bed mindlessly finishing schoolwork. It was during these rides that I discovered my first love. It didn’t have pigtails, nor did it bat its eyes at me on the playground. But it had my heart just the same. It was the art of song. More specifically, Beatles’ songs.

Fast forward 25 years and I’m attending the show “Rain- A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway” in Manhattan with my wife, Sonia. I’d heard great things from reliable sources, and was able to find a great deal on rear mezzanine seats for $25 each. Like any Broadway show, your comfort level is largely dependent on the girth of those to your immediate right and left. I hiked to my seat in Row L (the second to last row in the entire theater) and found myself in between my wife and a portly middle-aged gentleman whose arms and stomach hopelessly spilled over into my chair space. The lights dimmed as I leaned into my wife for fear of being completely engulfed by my other neighbor. Everyone, whether 25 or 75, was ready for a treat, regardless of logistical annoyances.

The lights dimmed and two large television screens flashed black and white images of yesteryear, with familiar hits from the Mamas and the Papas, Elvis and others serving as the backdrop. As I’d anticipated, the final clip of the sequence was that of Ed Sullivan, vibrantly introducing the band to the stage. Lights go on and there are the four faux Beatles, harmoniously crooning “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on stage, donned in the classic early-era Beatles black suits and orderly hair. The actor/singer playing Paul was listed in the Playbill as having won several McCartney sound-alike contests, and with good reason. Not only does his vocal tone mirror McCartney’s almost exactly, but he’s made up to look a good deal like him as well. They finished the set with other favorites such as “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” “This Boy” and “Twist and Shout” as the Paul character encouraged the crowd to clap with the beat and even get out of their chairs and dance. The baby boomers in the crowd were more than happy to oblige, as they seemed to treat the show more as a homecoming than a tribute concert, freely swaying in front of their seats, fingers snapping and eyes closed tight with delight.

Each individual set they performed was crafted masterfully around a different era of the band’s career. After ending one set, the televisions once again came on, this particular montage ending with the video image and audio both distorting simultaneously, indicating a changing of the guard. The opening chords of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” begin to pulse through the speakers and the band was on stage in vintage Sgt. Pepper gear. I smiled so much my face hurt.

Different eras appealed to different people, of course, and this became apparent as the show went on. The tried and true fans geeked out over an acoustic set that included an intimate performance of “Across the Universe” and “Norwegian Wood” and the less passionate ”stock” audience members still happily shouted along during the “na na” ending of “Hey Jude.”

Overall, the characterization of the classic Fab Four was near spotless, as Paul acted as the amiable, charismatic one, John the spokesman for psychedelic, George the reticent member along for the ride and Ringo, the head-bobbing beat-keeper. Put simply, when music is as great as this is, it’s worth celebrating, time and time again. Even the overly nasal portrayal of Lennon’s vocals was easily forgiven.

Would I recommend this show? If you consider yourself a Beatles fan, even mildly, I would say yes. That is, if you enjoy listening to the greatest music ever written.

* I intend to make this blog about music and music only. That means I’ll be writing reviews of songs, albums, concerts, books about artists, etc. Please feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts on: if you agree/disagree with me, other artists you’d think I’d like. Let’s use the Internet for what it’s supposed to be used for- to talk music!