San Fransisco’s garage-pop scene is like a shark: it needs to keep moving to stay alive, and it does so aggressively. Except in the case, instead of swimming and eating fish, the Bay Area bands need to keep making music. And no one knows that any better than Sonny Smith and the Sunsets. Among many other more concrete side projects, Smith recorded a project called 100 Records, in which he produced a song for each of one hundred bands that he had come up with. That same insane ambition is inherent on the new Sunsets record, Hit After Hit, as well, if on a much smaller scale.
While ambitious would certainly be the best word to describe the Sunsets as a band, it definitely doesn’t play out nearly as much in their sound. Starting on the album’s first track, “She Plays Yo-Yo With My Mind”, a lazy summer sort of tone pervades the album. The loose, scattered rhythms and lo-fi recording quality pairs with Smith’s warm, tossed-off vocals for an endlessly relaxed afternoon. The AM era melodies, traditional instrumentation, and ultimately familiar song structures may be totally expected, but they’re not offensively simple. Where the simplicity in other records could get grating, the Sunsets turn that into a comfortable slothfulness.
The tambourine-heavy “She Plays YoYo” revels in sloppy, sweet background vocals and thin, plywood guitars. Lyrics about a girl messing with his mind (“Green is yellow, orange is blue, the ground is stiff, yet it moves”) should induce a smirk as large as the one on Smith’s face. The plunking, vaguely country bass intro to “I Wanna Do It” sets up lyrics full of teenage angst, like in the sweetly sung repetitions of the song’s title. In the half-assed way that he limps through lyrics like “I wanna burn it down, I wanna watch it sink, oh yeah I wanna do it,” it’s as if Smith is insulating himself from caring while at the same time smirking at any potential hints of sentimentality, spinning it off into hyper-self-aware irony. When done poorly, this sort of ass-covering can be aggressively obnoxious, but Smith’s spot-on delivery and piles of little conscious musical flourishes keep him sounding endearingly personal.
The cough syrupy slow drum roll that opens “Home and Exile” is the sort of easy, flatlining genre reference that would seem unnecessary if the entire song didn’t hinge on being a loose, druggily slow surf rock nod. The dim, unfocused female backing vocals trail off under more of Smith’s laconic delivery. If other singer-songwriters and band front-people push the envelope with their music or vocal delivery, Smith seems to be climbing into that same envelope, affixing an ironic stamp to the front, and licking it shut.
Most of the songs clock in at under three minutes, and the Sunsets definitely know how to make the most of the time they’ve chosen to take. The two minute long “Girls Beware” brightly wavers between lingering bass hooks and stuttered guitar licks, male-female vocals cooing about how they’ve “got love to spare” and how “girls love me everywhere” now. The somehow snarky psychedelic instrumental “The Bad Energy From LA Is Killing Me” somehow apes an entire city in its swirling dullness.
The thumping space punk of “Teen Age Thugs” ironically talks about how afraid the singer is of punks themselves, rather than how punk he himself is. If the song were sped up just a bit, and the wavering effects taken off of the guitars, the song could pass for a Devo track, its nasal, just off-key harmonies and angular rhythm propelling everything forward. The serenading “Pretend You Love Me” captures the importance of faking things just a little bit, which is what Smith does so well here. Either he’s covering the sentimentality in a necessarily fake layer of irony, or he’s got enough irony and just needed to invent a little sentiment to keep things from being too ironic. Or, more likely, Smith has that perfect blend of the both that makes irony touching and sentiment endearing instead of overbearing.