Being unfamiliar with the first two self-released albums by the duo known as The Bergamot (native Indianans Jillian Speece of South Bend and Nathan Hoff of Michigan City), I will happily admit to being bowled over by everything their third album is: smart, eclectic, assured, soulful, moving, uplifting and radiating the confidence of musicians secure in their voices and united in their purpose.
There are many ways to illustrate the points above, but perhaps the best place to start is six songs into the intriguingly titled Static Flowers. Though Spence and Hoff often co-write their songs, this one’s a Hoff original, a simple folk-flavored guitar-and-vocals missive paying tribute to the late, troubled Amy Winehouse. Hoff’s jittery acoustic guitar accompaniment rather suggests the dark clouds gathering over his subject, and certain of his lyrics anticipate a looming tragedy (“it’s all coming down now/and it’s all around you now…”), but the empathy in his warm tenor, coupled to the supporting cry we hear in Speece’s strong, plaintive harmonizing, marks “Amy” not as a lament, not even as a tribute, but more a rhapsody on the good that survives Ms. Winehouse—it doesn’t trivialize her death; it honors her life.
Or, on a flightier note, consider the sunny climes of “Wishing Well.” This bright, sexy, rocking tune set in the summertime when the weather is fine is marked both by its carefree attitude towards the lazy, hazy, crazy days of the season and lyrics that are the musical equivalent of the snappy patter in a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie. All brisk pace and witty repartee set to a buoyant beat, it has the makings of a seasonal classic.
‘Amy,’ The Bergamot (Nathan Hoff and Jillian Speece), from Static Flowers
Still other listeners might be drawn to the late ‘60s-early ‘70s amalgamation of Motown and San Francisco flavors in “It’s Gunna Be Me,” in which Speece declaims (over Jimmy Clark’s stinging lap steel, Adam Abrashoff’s bustling drums and Tex Austin’s understated sax moans) as to how a prospective paramour’s evasive actions betray his affection for her. This is a bit of a sister song to the funky album opener “Linen,” a Speece-Hoff co-write addressed to another hesitant significant other (“Grace is over now, so why can’t you decide?” Speece demands in a full-throated Adele-like remonstration), in a busy, swirling production propelled by violin, piano, sax, propulsive drums and multi-tracked background vocals behind the emotive lead. Truly a vocal chameleon, Speece can at times sound uncannily like Adele, but in the uptempo numbers she’s more of a cross between Natalie Merchant at her most wistful and longing, and Suzanne Santo (of HoneyHoney) at her most self-assured.
The Bergamot, ‘Wishing Well,’ from Static Flowers
But if The Bergamot were to concentrate on being one kind of group over another, they might further hone their country chops. On two overtly country tunes—“The Southern Line” and the album closing “A Love Like You” (well, throw in the country-indebted “Grace,” too)–the rootsy arrangements are a striking fit for the timbre of the duo’s voices, and Speece especially thrives in the country environment. Another influence evident in her vocalizing is that of Carlene Carter, whose sassy phrasing Speece employs on “A Love Like You,” a joyous, toe-tapping shuffle further enlivened by Hoff’s wailing harmonica solo about midway through. In contemplating a journey of both geographical and metaphysical destinations, “A Love Like You” mirrors many Hoff-Speece songs in evincing a heightened awareness of the natural world around them as a living presence, a character unto itself: it marks time by speaking of “the smell of the crispness in that old desert sky/and the cacti you know they grow so green,” and at the end decrees, “I’m gonna hang my hat on that old winter’s sky/I’m gonna hang my hat upon the sun…” Before you know it a couple of seasons have come and gone, and our narrator is asserting, “we will go down to that rocky mountainside/and finish all the words to this song.” We don’t know if that lyric was written on a whim because Hoff and Speece really hit a wall in completing the tune, but in the context of this narrative arc it’s hardly insignificant that the singer feels the journey will get its amen when she bonds with the earth beneath her feet. Considering the blunt, intimate nature of the original lyrics and the physical contours of each song’s mise-en-scene being so explicitly defined, Hoff and Speece feel as if they’re moving towards something grand in their music. They may wind up writing exquisite country- and pop-based love songs, powerful conceptual pieces reflecting on the tenor of their times, or, should they take a hard left at the signpost up ahead, wry, cynical art songs–there seems to be no style beyond their reach, no topic beyond their ken. Watch this space for further developments, but in the meantime breathe deep the intoxicating fragrance of these Static Flowers.
Static Flowers is available at The Bergamot’s website.