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Sonny and the Sunsets - Longtime Companion

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Artist: Sonny and the Sunsets

Album: Longtime Companion

Label: Polyvinyl

Review date: Jun. 25, 2012

Sonny Smith is, in a way, the songwriter with a thousand masks. He’s been a playwright and performance artist as long as he’s been a singer. One of his earliest recordings was called One Act Plays, which was exactly what it sounds like — a series of short dramas set to music. His 100 Records project created full-blown singles for 100 imaginary bands, art and all. Smith and half of San Francisco’s psychedelic garage scene acted out his musical scenarios — as Nuggets guitar-chimers, Latin garagistes and, in one case, a lost and lonely Johnny Cash-style country crooner – on 2011’s compilation Hit After Hit. The “I” in Sonny Smith’s songs is almost never the “I” in Sonny Smith’s life, and he extends this concept well beyond lyrical content, to matters of style, genre and musical arrangement.

In Longtime Companion, Smith takes on a country avatar, switching out the psychedelic jangle for skiffle-ish strumming, twanging pedal steel (that’s Tom Heymann of The Court & Spark), and Takoma-filtered porch-blues (Sean Smith of Tompkins Square’s Berkeley Guitar series). Kelley Stoltz, who usually plays drums for Smith’s band, has switched to old-timey guitars, while Rusty Miller (most recently of Chuck Prophet’s outfit, but also Stoltz’s band, Jackpot and Bangalore Choir) sits in on drums. The result is more country flavored garage pop than actual country, with the main rusticated elements coming from the guitars (and mostly Heymann’s pedal steel). The one all-instrumental track, “Rhinestone Sunset,” comes closest to a barn-raiser, with its intricate, interleaved bluegrassy picking. “Dried Blood” ranks second in the manure-on-boots hierarchy, its rhythm a country two-step, its guitars a massed wall of twang and Smith’s voice swallowing a hiccup.

Still, the best stuff here isn’t necessarily the most authentically country. It’s the songs where Smith’s innate eccentricity upends a straight-laced formula. “Children of the Beehive” is about a fairly standard Americana subject — loving a divorced woman — and it’s couched in a kind of carefully contained, rocked-back on its heels, buttoned-down arrangements. It gets weird (and gratifyingly so) mid-cut, in an extended meditation on the social habits of bees, a bit of lefty, hippie nature worship in the middle of a church picnic. “Year of the Cock,” too, slips a Mickey into a Rawhide-ish country ramble, with surreal, natural images and a side-swiping acknowledgement of the multiple meanings of the word “cock.”

The best song on the disc is the very Byrds-ish “I See the Void,” where Smith turns the sun-kissed, upsweeping ramble of country-psych guitars toward an existential hole. It’s a lovely, loosely strung, reassuring kind of song, the kind that ought to be about lazy Saturdays, first love, driving, and yet, stubbornly, weirdly, it is about Sartrean nausea (“and, you know, it’s a funny kind of sad joy / I see the void”).

Certainly, there are lots of oddball country artists, perhaps even a few cracked enough to sing a lyric like “My mind is messed up all the time,” with Smith’s combination of self-deprecation and joy. Yet how country or how authentic Smith is (moderately), is perhaps, beside the point. Smith has spent a career poking through musical styles, retrofitting the ones that catch his ear to fit his stories. In Longtime Companion, he puts the drawl and shuffle of country into the service of a very peculiar vision, embracing and even seeking out the contradictions.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Sonny and the Sunsets

Tomorrow is Alright

Hit After Hit

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