Graded on a Curve: Sonny and the Sunsets, Longtime Companion

Sonny Smith’s reputation to this point has been a pop dude doing double time in the art world. But with Sonny and the Sunsets’ Longtime Companion, he makes a serious play for both country-rock and the decidedly dicey proposition of the Breakup Record. While the least of the Sunsets’ releases thus far, it still proves worth the effort, particularly for fans of strong contemporary songwriting.

Pop troubadours don’t usually come with pedigrees that include playwriting and performance art, and that’s just one aspect of Sonny Smith’s persona that’s helped to make him so interesting. To be sure this kind of artistic double dipping can lead to underwhelming and occasionally even irritating results, mainly due to simple creative arrogance.

But in reality musicians have been double and triple dipping into diverse artistic mediums for a very long time; John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell all published books for instance. And outside the realm of rock music Tony Bennett is a prolific painter and Louis Armstrong was a truly inspired collage artist.

At this late date artistic multi-dipping is far from any great surprise, but in rock terms the story of Sonny Smith still feels a bit unusual, maybe even fanciful. Out on the road at nineteen years old, playing blues piano in bars? Sounds like the makings of a really good screenplay. Original songs, short stories and even some plays get penned along the way? How Beat. And then that commission from the literary magazine arrives, compelling him to put together a CD of those plays set to music? Really, this is getting almost too good to be true.

But One Act Plays essentially served as Smith’s coming out party, in large part due to the participation of such notables as Neko Case, Jolie Holland, American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel, and Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer. The inclusion of the last two names is no accident; Smith’s a San Francisco boy.

But if sensibly touched by the hand of regionalism, his focus reached far beyond the norms of mere geographical musical networking, for the songs behind 100 Records, a project that provided Smith with another large spike in notoriety, all began their lives as part of an art instillation.

100 Records found one hundred different artists creating seven inch picture sleeves for their own fictive bands/performers with Smith then writing two songs to accompany each. Any way it’s sliced an endeavor of this magnitude stood as a major challenge. If only halfway successful it would still reek strongly of failure, presenting an aura of that aforementioned creative arrogance, even if the intention was actually just ambitiousness.

Thankfully for Smith and for listeners he proved up to the task, displaying chops and imagination to spare, and since that time he’s been off to the races under the moniker of Sonny and the Sunsets. 2009 saw the release of Tomorrow is Alright on the Soft Abuse label and last year found him/them on Fat Possum with Hit After Hit.

Both records found Smith honing rare songwriting ability and a breadth of influence that was at times striking in how it all registered as one guy’s inspired output. However, they could also be adequately summed up as blending Smith’s penchant for old-school pop simplicity (like a lot of relative new jacks, he’s a big doo-wop fan) with a smartly applied swath of friendly contempo psyche action. In my neighborhood that’s what’s called good stuff.

Now here’s Longtime Companion, the country informed Breakup Record. Another dangerous and yes, potentially disastrous move from a guy who seems to love these kinds of chances, but due to Smith’s talent as a writer and his heretofore lack of interest in waxing overly autobiographical, he avoids falling into the trap of cringe-inducing confessionals, painful polemics or woe-is-me platitudes. In the end Smith delivers his least successful document under the Sunsets banner, though to be fair the record only really suffers in comparison to his previous pair.

Choosing country music as the vehicle for an examination of lover’s heartbreak might seem like cliché. In fact that’s exactly what it is, but instead of straining for a spurious authenticity, Smith smartly settles for alt-country legitimacy that works rather well across Longtime Companion’s ten tracks. “Sea of Darkness” comes closest to achieving an actual country aura, thanks to some boldly honky-tonk-like steel guitar. It’s ultimately more Byrdsian than Buck Owens-esque however, and the sound of Smith’s voice, a bit like a smoother, more relaxed Peter Stempfel, is just the kind of thing to make Ralph Emery spit bullets.

Much of the record might be better described as radiating an alt-folky vibe, a sound immediately palpable on opener “I Was Born,” which begins with some home-spun picking only to see those basics embellished with swells of fragile flute. To be sure, it’s a sound by now well worn with precedent, but Smith avoids the trite with subtle touches, in particular the tough simplicity of a hi-hat rhythm, it’s locomotion helping to keep those flutes from sounding too precious, as flutes are wont to do.

“Dried Blood” increases Smith’s vocal similarity to Stempfel, and in fact the tune sounds somewhat like an outtake from a lost (and sadly mythical) Holy Modal Rounders session recorded at the barn of Owen Bradley roughly circa ’68. And the arrival of some rollicking barrelhouse piano midway through the track only adds to this situation.

This, along with a few very brief nods to Michael Hurley, assists Longtime Companion in shaping up as a fresh extension of last decade’s New Weird affairs, closer to Devendra Banhart and Vetiver than his San Fran subterranean-pop cohorts Fresh and Onlys and Shannon and the Clams. But as the record progresses, this freakishly folky aspects lessens considerably, replaced by a quality mildly reminiscent of Conor Oberst in Mystic Valley Band mode.

Well-drawn alt-folk, again; the major difference is that Oberst is very much a heart on the sleeve kind of guy and Smith, even when recording an album inspired by the end of a ten year relationship, prefers varying amounts of emotional distance.

Smith’s detachment and his even-handedness help Longtime Companion to transcend its major flaw. Specifically, the record’s first half bogs down with three tracks that needed some editing for length. “Pretend You Love Me,” the best of the trio, unfolds like a fine slice of pop from the ‘70s Laurel Canyon. The song’s duration alone (five and a half minutes, to be clear) isn’t a problem, but when placed between “Children of the Beehive” and the extended country shuffle of “Year of the Cock,” the trifecta adds up to a need for the concise.

The record rebounds solidly in its second half however, beginning with the sweet and lean instrumental workout “Rhinestone Sunset.” It all starts in a rather trad-country frame of mind, coming off like one of those honky-tonk breakdowns where every player gets a little time to strut their stuff and toss off some sweet licks, but soon enough the spotlight is given over to synths, electric keyboards, and yes those flutes, an instrument that’s a recurring motif on Longtime Companion. And “Rhinestone Sunset” leads into the warm strangeness of “I See a Void,” the album’s strongest individual track, at least at this early point.

The rest of the album just rolls. The prominent pedal steel continues from “Sea of Darkness” into “My Mind Messed Up,” though again its presence signifies far less of a natural Nashville inflection than it recalls the hippie-country sound of CSN&Y’s “Teach Your Children.”

And the closing title track deepens Longtime Companion’s often superb designs as a real player’s record. While the disc assuredly exists to map out a bevy of emotional issues to Smith’s satisfaction, it’s nice to find him not forsaking the musicianship in fleshing out a way forward. Therefore, the album works for us as well as for him.

So if the least satisfying Sonny and the Sunsets release, Longtime Companion’s lesser status isn’t any cause for concern. It’s simply a breakup record from a guy that was once more likely to get wrote up in Artforum than in Rolling Stone. In other words, it’s another step in Sonny Smith’s unusual trip. Personally, I’d like to hear him return to that pop smorgasbord approach, but whatever path he chooses from here will be intriguing at the very least.

Graded on a Curve: B-

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