Between his solo career and output with Sonny & The Sunsets, leading man Sonny Smith has seemingly maintained a two-pronged credo: follow your own twisted path, and maintain creative momentum like the graceful shark. The result is a truly multifaceted catalog, one that includes a collection of songs from 100 fictional bands, a dense sci-fi epic (2013’s Antenna to the Afterworld), and another LP repurposed from an abandoned short film (2015’s Talent Night at the Ashram).
For the Sunsets’ latest LP, Moods Baby Moods, Smith pulled in an outside producer: tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus. Even with that significant change in process, Smith has managed to assemble one of his most progressive records to date. Everything he touches benefits from a sizable bag of sonic tricks, from ’70s punk to lithe power pop. But on top of that, Garbus brought along new toys for Smith to play with, namely bits of new wave, ’80s funk, and random junk beats.
On one end of the spectrum, these sonic influences are grand and overt, like “Moods”, an indie rock ode to old Chic bangers, full of groovy guitar and synth made slightly dirty and unsexy. “Nightmares” is a similarly ramshackle refurbishment of new wave, akin to high school dweebs performing Modern English covers for a student art film.
In other instances, Smith and co. cannibalize the strongest strands of their genre study. “Dead Meat on the Beach” features a droning synth, but dressed up with bongos and guitars to sound like some dystopian surf pop anthem. “Check Out”, meanwhile, is the same country-fried indie rock jam Smith perfected a while ago, now made fresh with the steady hum of electronic noise. Because of that ability to bounce back and forth seamlessly between familiar and new, it would be unfair to put the weaker ideas exclusively at Garbus’ feet.
For years, Smith has been lumped in with Thee Oh Sees and Tim Presley (aka White Fence), and that’s not always fair. Those acts mostly bring the fuzz and the fury, and Smith has always been about nuance. His catalog doesn’t have the immediacy of those acts, or some of the inherent appeal, but he’s always chugged along joyfully to his own beat. This album proves just how distinct Smith is, and how his link to garage rock is increasingly less vital with each new release. Take, for instance, album closer “The Hospital Grounds at Night”, on which Smith floats between folk crooning, steady indie rock ballad, and sultry funk, all in a tight four minutes. This is a man with no allegiances, floating in the sea and waving his own kooky flag.
Smith has spent a few years creating emotionally powerful narratives, filtering thoughts and emotions through characters. But now he’s exemplifying this album’s title, and that decision’s done wonders for his connective potential. Most of the really important emotions on the album are as direct as a dropkick, despite the subject matter being quite heady. “White Cops on Trial” analyzes the craziness of cops not being convicted of murdering innocent citizens. Over a sultry groove, Smith points out everything wrong with the “Modern Age” in three short words: “Nothing to say.” He achieves a similar feat in “Needs”, summarizing humanity’s continued gluttony with a ceaseless moan of “I need more.”
Smith is a brilliant storyteller and creates characters as a means of exploring culture, love, science, and basic human fears. By parsing these big ideas through familiar narrative structures, Smith’s ideas are that much more accessible. In turn, the revelations gain a bigger impact from the funk and new wave tones, which take the edge off these blunt declarations.
Moods Baby Moods is a big album for Smith and his merry band of Sunsets. It’s exciting sonically, but deeply familiar. The emotions and sentiments cut harder than before. Though inconsistent, Smith both strikes harder and keeps his audience guessing more than ever before.
Essential Tracks: “Moods”, “Check Out”, and “The Hospital Grounds At Night”