Sonny Smith is a man of many talents.
The Bay Area native has made no bones about his deferred desire become a writer instead of a musician, even admitting that he “romanticized the idea” as fed to him in the work of Kerouac and Burroughs. This is something that fans of Smith’s rock project Sonny & the Sunsets might have already known in their hearts without ever hearing Smith state in it so many words, because Smith’s songs are all united by one thing: the linear narrative.
Whether he’s channeling the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage psychedelic to craft an understated space and/or rock opera on The Antenna To The Afterworld, or strapping on a dirty old six-string to ramble and sing out workman’s’ ballads on the overwhelmingly Dylan-esque (down to its sepia-toned cover shot) Longtime Companion, Smith’s vagabond coat pockets consistently overflow with tales to tell and yarns to spin, complete with minor characters, metafictional locations and – more often than not – frame narratives.
This isn’t all to say that the Sunsets’ music always takes a back seat to the frontman’s penchant for storytelling. Just, you know, a lot of the time. The group’s latest offering, Talent Night at the Ashram, was supposed to serve at the ground floor of a full-fledged film production, as is made evident by the spoken word clips spliced in throughout the record, apparently recorded candidly in pre-production. Or maybe that’s just what we’re being led to believe? In his continuing traversal of the various music styles that separate the beat generation from the psychedelic 60’s, Smith has most recently imbibed the bouncy, country-western bass lines and warm, jangly guitars of The Byrds. This rust-covered, folksy aesthetic, countered by the occasional fuzzed-out psychedelic free form jam sequence add up to a work that plays like an impromptu collision of Smith’s aforementioned previous two efforts.
The lyrics of “The Application” go for the gut right out of the gate. The singer’s tearful lamentation that his “application to be a human being” sits on a desk in a stack with all the others will cut to the cores of the disheartened young adults that undoubtedly serve as Smith’s primary audience. “Cheap Extensions” is the album most asynchronous track; it features a brisk disco drum line that props up the track with something approaching a contemporary indie rock sound, but it sounds so much more like a white, emotionally exhausted version of a Sly and the Family Stone tune. The soul is still there, that is.
Talent Night’s title track is a clumsy, listing stomp of a waltz, filled out by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-style organs and those wonderful, lazy, sixties-style tom rolls that we hear so few of today. The bright guitar tones on “Alice Leaves for The Mountains” make it sound like a Replacements tribute band fronted by Devendra Banhart, which is something that needs to exist. Ever in the foreground is the Frank Zappa-like creation and observation of Talent Night characters, with Smith playing the part of a detached yet mischievous narrator. “Happy Carrot Health Food Store” pokes fun at hippies and foodies while also painting a sympathetic picture of the working class. Clocking in over seven minutes long with a hazy jam session of an interjection, it feels like the album’s unofficial centerpiece.
So was Smith’s music-for-lyrics trade off worth it for the listener? It’s hard to say for sure. It’s pretty well-accepted that Smith’s technical musicianship and structural ambition has never quite matched his oratory and storytelling abilities, but the disparity seems to reach new heights on Talent Night. Many of the tracks plod through the same simple chord progression or fleetingly catchy riffs for what feels like far longer than their paltry three-and-a-half minutes, and the songs that manage to avoid that particular sonic pitfall tend to do so by diverting their course into the doldrums of jam sessions that are spacey and layered, but ultimately directionless. The samples of near-brilliance the pervade Sonny & the Sunset’s latest album correspond to longer, more conceptually developed instances in Sonny’s earlier work. Those who can’t get enough the crash cymbals, guitar feedback and Korg-saturated psychedelia would do better to listen to Antenna, while those who yearn for a more down to earth rhetoric should stick with Longtime Companion.