The Bergamot “Smile” Album Review
It’s a tricky thing to pull off something that’s fresh and retro without turning into a novelty act. The Bergamot pull that off quite nicely with Smile. It’s a snapshot of their 60-plus song repertoire, an easy, satisfying EP experience that mixes the indie genre with classical guitar licks, Motown treatments, James Taylor and the Beatles, not to mention some of that Over The Rhine feel. The Bergamot are songwriting duo Jillian Speece and Nathan Hoff, both from South Bend, supported by Andrew Teeple on bass and Grant Inman on drums. Hoff is classically trained. You can hear it in the arrangements, which are layered and orchestrated without being over-produced. Speece grew up singing with her family, though never in public, as she was painfully shy. She gradually blossomed into a vocal confidence that is on par with Sunny Taylor, and one of the great strengths of The Bergamot.
“Sale of the Ground” begins the disc with an intriguing, finger-pluck intro on the guitar. Speece enters with an easy vocal that is rich and smoky, strong and spontaneous. It’s hope versus inevitability here: a summer lake house is in danger of corporate encroachment. It’s perhaps a metaphor for life, a call to retain individuality in the face of conformity. “But I Do” has the strong melodies and sonic landscapes that smack a bit of Beatles meets 70s-era Chicago, with some of the whimsy and dynamic shifts you might expect from Andrew Bird. The lyrical repetition works for rhythmic effect, not just as song filler. The varying timbres weave into a culmination then back to an easy canter.
“You & Me” has a satisfying and familiar melody with a classic Motown feel supported by a nice organ line. The notion of love gets a surface treatment lyrically, but the point of this song is experience, not illumination. Speece and Hoff don’t seem pressured to always be profound, which is refreshing. They know when to just let the music be the music. The result is infectious in the best Motown tradition. You sing along, and you dance without a care about who may be watching. “In My Life” is a mellower mix of carefree and contemplative elements. We’re in the moment, the spontaneity, the musical magic, rather than any sort of analytical or practical place. “Railroad” begins with a magical a capella that Speece calls “eerie optimism.” It’s my favorite spot on the disc. The retro-soul feel works to paint memories of earlier days of idealism and escapism and the realization that we don’t live free like we used to. “Oh, the way we thought we’d change the world when we were standing on the railroad feeling free from the world / our thoughts shattered like glass.” The sense of loss is palpable musically and lyrically. It brings an understated optimism that uses memory to fortify our present for the better. The EP ends with another arrangement of “You & Me” to keep you singing for hours.
Smile gave me many smiles, as well as a hunger for more. This summer, expect to see an acoustic CD, Haven, along with a full release next year called Static Flowers. (Mark Turney)