The Smittens - Gentlefication Now!

By michael

When was the last time politics shook itself into a cheery dance party? Even if partially hamstrung by the musical confines of Indiepop, The Smittens have got a unique enough set of beliefs and ideals to make them promising enough to watch out for.

The most engaging thing about this Vermont quintet is their "Gentlefication" manifesto sketched out in their liner notes as well as on their website. Gentlefication basically boils down to the belief that kindness and open-heartedness is infectious, and can help make the world a better place. Put in their own words, "being nice is a political act." It almost seems like the subject of a speech you would cringe to hear at a high school or college graduation, yet The Smittens are intelligent enough to realize that "being nice" is not something that requires you to sermonize or to secularize. Niceness has to start on a micro level with yourself, your family, and community in order to have any hope of reaching the macro level: the rest of the world. The band has taken to playing as many benefits as possible, include shows to support battered women's shelters, rape crisis organizations, lesbian and gay communities, and AIDS education agencies. There is definitely something more honest about this freewheeling brand of politics then the way current politicians tend to paint immaculate, caring pictures of themselves in order to sell their campaign and further a political career.

While the motivations and ideologies behind the band appear solid, The Smittens are still carving out their musical territory. Beliefs aside, a first glance at "Gentlefication Now!" and its Archies-inspired cover might lead one to imagine this album as a wonderful mix of baroque pop and peppy bubblegum, with enough jaunty acoustic guitars riffs to keep you dancing. The album title itself conjures up similar nuances of cheer. However, the soft-rock rebellion will have to wait, because at the moment The Smittens are basically an above average Indiepop band. This is not said contemptuously, just with a little bit of frustration. The easy reference points to their sound are Beat Happening (lead singer Max Andrucki has a wavering baritone that sounds a lot like Calvin Johnson), K/Sarah Records (Both Holly Chagnon and Dana Kaplan have the flattened type of female voices found on these labels), as well as the aforementioned Archies.

While fans of the Indiepop genre will find much to enjoy here (especially "Gin and Platonic," with a fun melodic quote from The Go-Go's "Vacation"), the best songs on this album are the ones where the band take heed of their album title and exploit the gentler, softer, and sugary sides of their music. Songs like "Cotton Sox" and "The Champagne Room" glow with optimistic vocal harmonies and a suitcase full of Burt Bacharach keyboards, while the endless parade of chipper "la la la" vocals on the title track could be the second coming of the Smurfs' theme song. Best of all is "Capucine," where they are able to twist (without irony) the repeated line "I love my mom so much I give my little pony a perfect haircut everytime!" into one of the most bizarrely uplifting and smile-inducing moments I've heard all year. These nuggets of cohesion make the more generic indiepop songs like "I Hate Vermont" (yet another song about being stuck in the middle of nowhere) and "Army of Pop Kids" (where the buoyant harmonies can cross the line into annoying) much more frustrating.

Overall, Gentlefication Now! proves to be a promising start for the Smittens. They succeed in being able to sincerely convey their unique politics into an upbeat and positive environment without resorting to preaching or overly-saccharine melodies. While they haven't fully developed a sound as unique as their musical idols, it seems like they are well on their way to spreading smiles.