Sonny & the Sunsets explore new genres like snakes shed skin. In the past, the imaginative San Francisco act, led by folksy everyman Sonny Smith, has successfully assumed the sounds of 50’s proto-rock, garage blues, doo-wop, and punk (not to mention Smith’s 100 Albums project, in which he created 200 songs by 100 fictitious bands). On their latest LP, Longtime Companion, Smith and Co. saunter into the land of cheap whiskey and cheatin’ women to deliver a true heartbreak album.
Since Smith’s musical heart is rustic and jangly by nature, this country splash should have seemed inevitable. Channeling the fusion of alt-country pioneers, The Sunsets marry outlaw sentiment, Bakersfield’s dirty twang, and folk rock honesty, adding in hints of whimsical psychedelia. And, like any good Californian should, Smith delivers his country-styled heartache with black humor and a casual spirit.
Smith starts his story with “I Was Born”, wrestling with the paralyzing aftershocks of seeing “someone talking to my wife,” and admitting “you know the feeling cuts just like a knife.” An otherwise stripped down honkytonk complete with an old-reliable walking bass and she-did-me-wrong lyrics, the song bursts open with a lush, bittersweet, fluted melody between verses, giving Smith’s confusion (“I was born, but am I really here?”) a pensive place to land. The pace picks up only slightly with “Dried Blood”, but the solemnity endures despite the song’s punkish sneer. “Pretend You Love Me”, budding from the confusion on “I Was Born”, finds Smith grasping at the straws of denial. Like a countrified Astral Weeks tune, the landscape for Smith’s pathetic state is countered with flourishes of verdant sounds, expressing an unspoken optimism.
Eventually, Sonny & the Sunsets utilize country music’s varied styles–Grateful Dead on “Sea of Darkness”, Johnny Cash on “Year of the Cock”, Gram Parsons and Buck Owens on “Rhinestone Sunset”–to tell the time-honored story of a man scorned, a man still pitifully (or rightfully?) convinced he “can make you love me,” which Smith croons on the concluding title track. While Longtime Companion may suffer from infrequent changes in pace and tone, Smith’s archetypal broken heart is articulated kaleidoscopically, and with the authenticity of a grizzled highwayman.
Essential Tracks: “I Was Born”, “Pretend You Love Me”