After the Gold Rush

Thunk. That’s the sound a band makes when it leaps for the big time and misses–and it’s one you’re likely to hear more often around town, now that the buzz about the Chicago “alternative” music scene has quieted down. Two of the local bands picked up at the tail end of the 1994-’95 major-label invasion, Fig Dish and the Smoking Popes, have new albums out this month, and while one has significantly more going for it than the other, at this point neither group is likely to pull off the kind of success that was expected of it at the height of Chicago fever. Both were chosen for their adherence to styles that were currently popular, but now that the music industry’s moved on to other things, their window of opportunity is narrowing.

Fig Dish has managed to outlive some of its faster-rising guitar-pop peers–the more sought after Loud Lucy, for instance, broke up after one poorly received album. Fig Dish’s first LP, That’s What Love Songs Often Do, is actually better than the new When Shove Goes Back to Push (Polydor), its simple but pleasant hooks presented with a charming snottiness and driven into the brain by sheer exuberance. But despite plum touring slots with Veruca Salt, the Gin Blossoms, and the Rentals, its hypercharged power pop failed to connect with record buyers. According to an article earlier this summer in Billboard, the band was disappointed with the album’s performance, a sentiment the label’s A and R director expertly recast by saying “the extra energy of frustration was poured into songwriting.”

Really, though, the energy on When Shove Goes Back to Push seems to have gone into everything but the writing. It’s not often that the packaging of an album actually offers the most concise critique of what’s inside, but the cover of this one, designed to look like the box for a model-car kit, is spot on: the parts seem to have been manufactured on some alt-rock assembly line, and the sum of them falls frustratingly short of a whole. Maybe the “glue required” label is a suggestion for what one might need to get into it.

After replacing drummer Andy Hamilton with Bill Swartz (of Ultra Swiss, a band led by ex-Veruca Salt drummer Jim Shapiro), Fig Dish returned to the studio, where, from the sound of it, they just plain tried too hard. In the Billboard article, singer-guitarist Blake Smith cites Styx and REO Speedwagon as influences, and while the band tends more toward post-Nirvana soft-hard dynamics than all-out cornball grandeur, the album displays the same kind of saccharine inanity that eased those AOR whores down millions of gullets. It was produced by Phil Nicolo of the Butcher Brothers, the duo that polished up Urge Overkill’s Saturation, and he’s slapped a similar polyester sheen on Fig Dish, down to the “ooh ooh ooh” chorus on “When Shirts Get Tight.”

Aggro guitar pop isn’t rocket science to begin with, but the group is clearly going for the lowest common denominator here, in a last-ditch attempt to make it pay. But based on the flat performances on the new record and the uninspired singsongy melodies, the best it can hope for is that persistence or luck might yield a blip of fame. Relentless touring and promotion has done the trick lately for no-talents Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20, neither of whom could get arrested a year ago, but there are no longer more than a handful of guitar-based alternative bands in the top 50 of the Billboard album chart, and the odds can only get worse.

When the Smoking Popes were drafted by the majors in 1995, nobody hoped they’d be the next Nirvana–they were supposed to be the next Green Day. Already five-year veterans of the suburban punk scene when Capitol reissued their second album, Born to Quit, they’d honed a derivative but catchy sound: Josh Caterer delivered amazingly naive songs about girls in a Morrissey-esque croon, over lean, buzz-saw chording a la the Ramones or Undertones. The album contained one minor alternative-radio hit, “Need You Around,” but it failed to skyrocket them to the big time. Fig Dish could take a lesson from the Popes’ response: on Destination Failure (due out on Capitol August 26) the basic approach doesn’t waver, but the production (by Jerry Finn, who mixed Green Day’s Insomniac), the performances, and the songwriting are all much improved.

The new record, like the last one, is slippery with Caterer’s lovey-dovey lyrics, but a new edge slices through here and there. On the album’s opener, “Star Struck One,” Caterer chides himself for another case of love at first sight with “Don’t be a pussy all your life,” while “They Lied” is a not overly cute number about mishearing song lyrics and feeling betrayed. He’s still a far cry from his professed hero, Frank Sinatra, but Caterer’s singing is also better: his phrasing takes smart little detours, and his occasional bursts of excitement are restricted to the places where they have the most effect. And while the punkish instrumental attack offers no real surprises, it does provide a muscular balance to Caterer’s frequent feyness. With their short-sleeved madras shirts and low-key charms, the Popes are probably no more likely to sneak onto the charts tomorrow than Fig Dish. But in ten years, when future music fans have come to regard acts like Fig Dish as the 90s equivalent of 80s hair-metal bands, the hooks on Destination Failure will still be sharp.


The current double issue of the Nation is devoted to music, and while it predictably nods to leftist-feminist paragon Ani DiFranco and her Righteous Babe label in no fewer than three articles, the magazine does a fine job of elucidating how the tightening grip of multinational entertainment conglomerates stifles art–even lowly pop music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Smoking Popes photo by Nitin Vadukul.