March 30, 2004

The Smittens "Gentlefication Now!"

Gentlefication now! Sounds like the slogan for a bunch of wussies, doesn’t it? Well, screw you, you over-aggressive, testosterone-drenched frat boy! Just because you try to be nice to people and not put up some intimidating bullshit alpha male front.

And that sums up the philosophy of the Smittens. “Gentlefiction now!” is their battle cry, and their motto is “being nice IS a political act.” The Smittens believe that if we all just cut the bullshit and just try to be nice to each other, the world will be a much better place. Ah, but don’t think that the Smittens are total wimps. When faced with discriminatory political factions, they will lay the smack down! After all, discrimination is a big obstacle that keeps people from just being nice to each other.

Oh, what’s that? This is a music review site, not a philosophy review site? Okay, time to switch critical perspectives...

This debut by the Smittens is definitely one of most important albums to come out in the past year, at least in the indie pop world. This record has four qualities that make it a trail blazer in the indie pop genre. Those qualities are the gentlefication philosophy (already discussed), Max Andrucki, Dana Kaplan, and bisexuality.

First of all, lead male vocalist Max Andrucki might just have the sexiest male singing voice east of the Mississippi (the sexiest on the west side is Calvin Johnson). The best way I could describe it is that it has a bassy tone reminiscent of Calvin Johnson or Stephin Merritt combined with the flair and power of Morrissey.

Then, you have Dana Kaplan, the lead female vocalist. She’s got a high, pretty voice, matching the beauty and cuteness of Rose Melberg or Jen Sbragia. Just sugary sweet.

The other Smittens, Colin Clary, David Zacharis, and Holly Chagnon sing backup (and Holly, who’s mainly the Smittens’ drummer, sings lead on one song), but it’s mostly Max and Dana singing alone or together.

Bisexuality? Yes, bisexuality! You see, pretty much all twee/cuddlecore has been about boy/girl love. Sure, we all thought there might have been something going on between the Softies when we saw them close together on the back of It’s Love, but no, there was nothing there (and they’re both married to men, I know it as a fact). But the Smittens actually bill themselves as 50% gay, and it’s reflected in their songs. As for the music itself, it’s catchy guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums stuff, and it’s reminiscent of what a modern version of a ‘60s cartoon band might sound like. In fact, a couple Smittens are influenced by the Archies, so there you have it.

So, you want to hear about particular songs? Okay. Well, you have a title track, “Gentlefication Now! (the La La La Song)”, a peppy, catchy theme (and yes, it does have quite a lot of “las” in it) with a couple of funny self-referential verses about Smittens members. There's a great one about the drummer that goes “Holly’s getting a muscle here, we think it’s from lifting beer. She claims it’s from hitting the snare. Tell me now what you think about that,” and then there’s a reference to Colin Clary’s solo career that goes “Colin’s new album is really long. His new material is really strong, and if he swears don’t tell his mom. Tell me now what you think about that.” Great stuff.

There’s also “I Hate Vermont”, and the subject matter for that song is self-explanatory. The Smittens lament that “there’s no good record stores and no good bookstores. 55 frat bars and one crappy gay bar (reviewer’s note: There’s that bisexuality I was talking about). Why don’t good bands ever come to play?” Sure, it’s about Vermont, but any cool person from the middle of nowhere can relate.

The most blatantly bisexual song on the album is “Doomed, Lo-Fi and In Love”. First, Max sings about stealing Dana’s girlfriend for a short fling, and then Dana sings about stealing Max’s boyfriend for a short fling. How many other bands have you heard of doing a song like that? Certainly not any twee pop bands. If you want a positive homosexual twee pop song, there is “My Girl”, in which Dana sweetly sings about a girl she was in love with one summer. It’s a very cute, very twee song, and if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics (and song title), you’d be primed to think that it’s just another boy/girl love song. But it’s not!

(By the way, I want to add here that I have no idea if everything the Smittens sing about is autobiographical. Just so you know.)

There are a few other great highlights, too. One of them is “Gin and Platonic”, which “borrows” some of its melody from “Vacation” by the Go-Gos. “Vacation, all I ever wanted...” is changed to “Relationships I never wanted. Relationships I have avoided...” Personally, I prefer the Smittens’ version because I think the lyrics are better and that song is probably Max’s sexiest vocal turn on the album. There’s also “Army of Pop Kids”, a call for pop kids around the country to defy the imperialist establishment “for just one minute” by joining hands and just dancing. Quite poignant.

I do, however, have two negative points to mention about this album. The most negative aspect of this album is “To the Enemies of Political Pop”. Now, let me emphasize that I do love this song. It’s a great anti-discrimination anthem. However, I’m embarrassed to play it for anyone completely unfamiliar with the Smittens. Why? Because for a large portion of the song, Max, with great enthusiasm, repeatedly belts out the line, “This is not faggot rock.” If a listener unfamiliar to the Smittens doesn’t listen closely to the other lyrics (“Whoops, I knocked down the churches. Whoops, I burned down the malls.”), it’s easy to see how he or she might get the wrong idea and think that the Smittens are homophobes. But no, “this is not faggot rock” is actually a sarcastic statement. I just dread trying to explain that to someone who’s easy to anger.

A smaller flaw is that “Gentlefication Now! (the La La La Song)” doesn’t have verses about Max, Dana, and David. I don’t know, I just wish they could have come up with funny verses about them and extend the song, since the song is kind of short and it is basically their theme. I do like the song the way it is because it’s very catchy and the verses about Colin and Holly are great, but I wonder what witticisms they could have come up with for the other three Smittens.

However, this is supposed to be a rave review, for what I consider to be a very important album, though, so I’d like to say something positive things to end the review. I just want to praise the Smittens for the great work they did with the cheap, dollar-store keyboard part on the album opener, “Twee Valley High”. It’s very inspiring to hear what can be done with those things in the hands of professionals.

So, to all you indie popsters out there, you must get this album. Embrace gentlefication, and embrace bisexuality! With the help of the Smittens, we’ll be the most liberal, yet catchy and fun musical genre yet.

--Eric Wolf

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