At their final concert in 1998, Smoking Popes’ lead singer and songwriter Josh Caterer introduced their single “I Know You Love Me” with the following words [paraphrasing]: “This is my favorite Smoking Popes song because it is about my relationship with Jesus.” Thud.

It was an auspicious end to a group that had long outgrown their sophomoric band name, not to mention the pop-punk trappings of their initial phase, but had nonetheless remained indie heroes in their native Chicago, even attracting the attention of none other than Steven Patrick Morrissey, who recruited them to open for him, dubbing them one of the top five acts in the US. Listening to the Popes’ first few high-profile releases, most notably Born To Quit and Destination Failure, one could see where Moz was coming from: Caterer could write amazing hooks, and he had the pipes and lyrical wherewithal to back them up. Crooning and power chords have always been a delicious blend, and Caterer is a true master of the form, and a deceptively musical one at that. A friend once said that the Popes are what everyone thought Weezer was (or what Weezer could have been) – but the comparison doesn’t do them justice, they are very much their own thing. In fact, if anything, I would equate them to Cougar Town (ABC): if you can get past the name, you’ll find something truly worthy and lovable.

Needless to say, when Josh Caterer underwent his dramatic conversion, folks were a little surprised. Wasn’t this the same guy who sang “Rubella”?! Yet here he was, ditching the Popes moniker and putting out a handful of terrific records under The Apostle-inspired name Duvall. As good as Duvall was – all of their stuff is fantastic, and aside from the lyrical content, completely in keeping with the Popes’ aesthetic (best Christmas record of the last 10 years) – many of us were excited when Caterer mellowed in 2005 and put the Popes back together. They’ve since released two more masterpieces, Stay Down and this year’s teenage concept-record This Is Only A Test.

I’m honestly not sure why they aren’t more well known, or why their two recent records haven’t garnered as much attention; the music is that good. Perhaps Caterer alienated the more casual Popes fanbase when he went public with his faith (and lost some of his more pious following when he re-constituted the Popes)? Who knows. Bottomline is, The Smoking Popes are phenomenal and Caterer is an inspiration:

I’d be doing The Popes a disservice if I didn’t mention that Josh wrote what has to be one of the most devastating proto-Emo songs about the dissolution of a relationship (and the ‘needy-guy phenomenon’) with “Pretty Pathetic.” Watch out, you may abreact:

And just for a piece of Duvall, here’s one of their rare quiet moments, and perhaps finest hours, a song about assurance that, in one fell swoop, will make you forget all the CCM travesties that have corrupted song titles like “Jesus Never Leaves Me.” Duvall represents about as deft and authentic an integration of Christianity and pop as the blogger has ever found: