Artist: Josh Caterer
Title: The Heart of Christmas
Label: Independent

Chicago pop-punk band Smoking Popes did quite well in the 1990s, scoring national radio airplay and touring with headliners like Green Day and Morrissey. But things took an unexpected turn when lead singer Josh Caterer became an outspoken Christian after surviving a really bad cocaine trip.

Such a back-story makes his low-key holiday EP, The Heart of Christmas, all the more engaging, a once un-churched artist putting the season to music without pretense. Across five mostly acoustic songs, Caterer simply reflects the fresh faith and family-and-friends fun that make December so special.

True to the Popes pop roots, the title track has a stripped-back Buddy Holly purity to it as Josh sings, “I believe there’s hope for everyone/God sent His only Son; that’s the heart of Christmas.” Buoyed by a unique rhythm, he tells the story of Jesus in more detail and with a folk influence on “The Baby from Bethlehem.”

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is the only hint of tradition here, but Caterer casts the familiar words in an interesting new light with a different melody and chord structure.

Even if you’re already stuffed with Christmas music, have never heard of Josh, and don’t feel compelled to have him on your radar, “Conroy the Gingerbread Boy” is worth a download. Put it on while making holiday cookies with the kids, and watch their imaginations come to life. Caterer would do well as a children’s performer.

The Heart of Christmas, available through the artist’s Web site and at his concerts, closes with “Austin Bound,” one of those geographical yuletide ditties about escaping winter weather that won’t mean much to anyone outside the sunny city in Texas. It’s not the best way to finish, but as an intro for new listeners, this EP is still not a bad place to start.

Listen on Spotify while you read.