Twee time

The warm and fuzzy pop of the Smittens
February 4, 2008 5:33:24 PM

UNDERREPRESENTED? The Smittens formed around a name — and a desire to fill the twee void in Burlington, Vermont.

In the cold climes of maple country, the Smittens are sentimental saps and proud of it. Militant, even. They went so far as to print the phrase “Being nice is a political act” in the liner notes of their two albums, the first of which was called Gentlefication Now! (North of January). In this cruel world, the odds are against the Burlington (Vermont) quintet. But they press on.

“You’re like Frodo climbing up Mount Doom, one little hobbit versus the entire army of all evil,” says guitarist Colin Clary. The rest of the line-up is keyboardist Max Andrucki (currently pursuing a master’s in geography at Leeds College), drummer Holly Chagnon, guitarist/keyboardist Dana Kaplan, and bassist and Newburyport native David Zacharis. But their roles in the band take a back seat to their roles in one another’s lives. “It wasn’t about the music first. It was about forming this group of friends,” says Kaplan. “That’s really what Gentlefication was all about. That’s been our grounding value.”

The Smittens were born in 2002 from, of all things, a driving game. While traveling for hours around New England going to shows, Zacharis and Andrucki would make up band names. When they came up with the Snowpants, they called Clary and told him the name of the band they wanted to form. Then they called back with a new name — the Smittens. Kaplan and Chagnon were soon brought on board. No matter that Chagnon didn’t play drums and Zacharis had never touched a bass. Details, details.

The Smittens formed around a name but also around a desire to fill the twee void in Burlington, that jam-band capital of the North. “We wanted to do the music that we wanted to hear,” says Zacharis. “We were feeling underrepresented.” Their first album came out in March 2004; its follow-up, A Little Revolution (North of January), arrived 18 months later. They remain mysterious about the title and the release date of their third album, but they expect it to come out on the Happy Happy Birthday to Me label in the next few months.

The other members cite Clary as the musical heart of the band, a man nurturing talents both burgeoning and mature. The group’s sound bounces easily between the refinement of wispy Australians the Lucksmiths and the naïveté of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, an ’80s Boston indie folk-rock favorite. With Kaplan, Andrucki, and Clary all chipping in on vocals and everyone collaborating on songwriting, the result is a charming blend of styles and harmonies, and songs with titles like “Twee Valley High” and “Doomed, Lo-Fi and in Love.” They also revel in mixing things up. Kaplan: “Clary might write a song about a girl that he digs, and I get to sing it and suddenly it’s got a queer connotation to it.”

The Smittens have shared the stage with the likes of the Mountain Goats, Stars, and Kimya Dawson. With everyone in grad school or holding down a full-time job, they end up playing weekend shows out of town more often than they gig in Burlington. And getting out of town, for shows like the one this Saturday at Lizard Lounge, has produced a devoted fan base spread from twee to shining twee. When the band played the Athens Popfest at the 40 Watt in Georgia last year and Kaplan’s microphone failed, the crowd ably sang a chorus.

There’s a warm fuzzy-wuzziness the Smittens bring with them to the stage. And they feel it’s helped fuel that fan base. “I think that there’s something about the way we are together on stage,” says Kaplan. “You can see we’re a good group of friends, and that comes out in our banter and the dynamics we have.” Although they describe their relationships as more like brothers and sisters than friends, there is little sibling rivalry or back-seat bickering to report. Kaplan, who’s getting a master’s in negotiation and conflict resolution, adds that this outfit “hardly gives me any opportunity in practicing my skills.”

That solidarity comes in handy when you’re wholly independent. “You have to be really creative to do everything on your own terms,” says Clary. A big part of that is Zacharis’s colorful flyer designs, which, filled with winsome-faced, bubblegum boys and girls holding hands, give credence to the Smittens’ twee image. Both their songs and their flyers, according to Clary, “tie into the same vision of innocence and warmth and love.” That’s the biggest hook, they say, more than any riff or beat they could hope to pen. “You hear a song that gives you a glimmer of hope about something, that’s inspiring and attractive,” explains Kaplan. “Who doesn’t want it?”

THE SMITTENS + ONE HAPPY ISLAND + THE 500S | Lizard Lounge,1667 Mass Ave, Cambridge | February 9 | 617.547.0759


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