Release Date: Feb 17, 2015
Record label: Polyvinyl
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Restless Bay Area songwriter Sonny Smith formed his ramshackle collective Sonny & the Sunsets around his endless stream of songs, producing so much inventive, homespun music he went so far as to write and record 200 original songs for a conceptual art show in 2010. While a far cry from some of those high concept one-off tunes, the more refined fare of Sonny & the Sunsets' full-length albums can sound just as ambitious, creative, and strange, with Smith's mind always turning out a blurry whir of various characters, scenes, and sonic pictures. With fifth album Talent Night at the Ashram, Smith again collects some friends to fill out his home-recorded musings, this time spinning ten songs with more cinematic aspirations, each exploring different scenarios that feel like plots to tiny screenplays and bending styles on almost every song.
It’s tempting to take Sonny Smith at his word on Talent Night at the Ashram. The chameleonic Smith (now that he mentions it) is a bit of a shaman as a songwriter: mysterious, challenging and exotic, yet for the ready-to-be-converted, a revelation unlike any other. In terms of sound alone, Smith’s last two albums, the country-rock breakup chronicle Longtime Companion and the spaced-out synth-funk of Antenna to the Afterworld do little to prepare the listener for the off-kilter folk-rock of Talent Night at the Ashram.
Like many similarly prolific artists, Sonny Smith seems to release nearly everything he records, warts and all. Having released five albums proper in nearly as many years, not to mention innumerable other projects in which he’s played a hand, one would not fault Smith for simply resting on his laurels and phoning it in. But Talent Night at the Ashram, while many things, is anything but that.
There’s a moment on Talent Night at the Ashram when singer Sonny Smith is conversing melodramatically with a dog. "Why did you go?" he asks it sadly, receiving whining barks in response. "Well, I’m going to swallow you," he replies before seemingly directing his voice back to whoever is listening in on their conversation. "And then it pans and it goes into this other scene that felt much more artificial," he finishes before the song teeters back into a psychedelic jam session of electric guitar and reverb.
Sonny Smith is often lumped in with his San Francisco garage rock peers. But while San Fran musicians Kelley Stoltz and the Fresh & Onlys Shayde Sartin pitch in, there is a sense of mysticism on the fifth Sonny and the Sunsets record that differentiates it from much of the three-chord rock coming out of the city. With elements of glam and soothing, Beach Boysesque pop, Smith weaves a fantastical web of tracks originally conceived as short films, giving Talent Night At The Ashram a film score quality.
The collected works of Sonny Smith are a serialized adventure, not a traditional rock discography, so each new album warrants a quick recap. When last we heard from this multi-talented San Francisco weirdnik, on the final track of 2013’s Antenna To The World, he was down in the dumps after a love triangle involving an android and her cyborg husband. At least Smith got to visit space, where cosmic rays gave his scraggily garage rock a groovy synth-pop glow.
A little too dignified for radio’s moist come-ons, a little too loose for R&B classicism, Estelle has never made it fully clear, in a decade-plus career, whether she was a dissenter, an aspirant, a traditionalist or something else altogether. As a result, she’s been pleasant, but not essential ….