Sonny Smith has bounced back from the post-divorce listlessness of Longtime Companion. He has returned from the wandering, dissociative identity disorder of 100 Records: Vol. 3. On Antenna to the Afterworld, due to drop June 11 on Polyvinyl, Smith is back to what he does best: lending his perceptive, singular voice to understated rock tunes with his posse The Sunsets. He’s scarred, bleary-eyed and the opposite sex is only beginning to come back into focus.
The future is uncertain on the propulsive, guitar-driven “Palmreader.” In the video found below, Smith plays the role of box office attendant / director of a short, black-and-white film that centers around a gory, B-movie death match. The video serves as an odd accompaniment to an otherwise gentle rocker. Maybe it speaks to the precarious nature of Smith’s ambiguous destiny as he re-enters bachelorhood. Or maybe he’s just a guy with a sense of humor and an appreciation for cheap special effects. Watch the video below and pre-order your copy of Antenna to the Afterworld.
Indianapolis readers can catch Sonny & The Sunsets at Radio Radio on Wednesday, June 19. Grab tickets from MOKB Presents. Fellow Californians Little Wings and Bloomington’s Mike Adams at His Honest Weight will be on hand to lend support.
Sonny Smith is a tough man to pigeon hole. Just when you think you’ve got him figured, he turns the equation on its head. Smith has kept busy since leaving Fat Possum for Polyvinyl last year. In the wake of his divorce, Smith & the Sunsets released the best break-up record of 2012 in Longtime Companion. Earlier this year, he debuted the third (and strongest) installment in his 100 Records series, showcasing his range by bouncing from reggae to instrumental folk to jangly garage rock with ease.
On June 11, Sonny & the Sunsets will release its latest LP Antenna to the Afterworld (Pre-Order). Stream the album’s opening track “Dark Corners.” It’s a synth-heavy pop tune that proves a far cry from the broken-hearted cowboy songs of Longtime Companion. Also, check out the band’s cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” set for limited-edition, 7″ treatment on Record Store Day.
Written by Rob Peoni
It’s early evening and you’re bellied up to the bar at your favorite watering hole, The Longtime Companion. You like this place for its general state of disrepair that, in a certain light, could be mistaken for nostalgia. A layer of dust, about the thickness of a dime, appears to cover every inch of the dimly lit bar, giving the place a kind of yellowish glow.
The jukebox spins old 45s of 1950s country ballads. Every track features a warbling lap steel. This type of music suits the patrons of The Longtime Companion. The crowd is older and entirely male; everyone looks to be some variation of the narrator from The Big Lebowski. Men with leathery hands and dust-worn smiles that carve furrows in their weathered cheeks. Urban cowboys trading singles, with a silent seriousness, over racks of nine-ball.
In the background, you hear the soft, bouncing slap of an acoustic guitar followed by an eerie, springing pluck of the lap steel. The first few notes of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” waft across the bar like the smoke of too many cigarettes. Just then, the entrance to the saloon creeps open, casting a flood of golden light across the room. Through the doorway, only the outline of a man wearing a straw hat is visible. After the door shuts, a slender man, looking to be in his early 40s, comes into focus. He strolls past the pool tables and sets his hat on the bar, occupying the stool next to yours. As introduction, you offer the man a knowing nod and return your focus to bourbon and Hank Williams.
“Don’t know if I’ve seen you around these parts before,” you say, extending a handshake to your new drinking companion.
“Name’s Sonny,” he says.
“You live near here?”
“Not too far,” Sonny says, signaling the bartender for another whiskey. “I live just outside of town in a small spot on the beach.”
“So what’s your story?” you ask.
Sonny offers a half-smile and squinted eyes that appear fixed on some otherwise invisible horizon. It’s more of a wince than a grin. “You don’t want to hear my story,” he says. “It’s a bummer.”
“I like train wrecks,” you say. “Try me.”
On his new record Longtime Companion, we find Sonny Smith grappling with change, both professional and personal. After a disappointing pair of releases on Fat Possum, Smith has found a new home at Polyvinyl Records. He is also fresh off the break-up of his marriage. To tackle these issues, Smith has moved his project, Sonny and the Sunsets, from the Link Wray side of the Bay Area surf rock scene towards a country-infused sound fit for the honky tonk. This is a logical decision, as country music has long served as a platform for the downtrodden and brokenhearted.
Why do we love break-up records? The late rock critic Paul Nelson offered up an explanation in his 1975 review of Neil Young’s post-divorce record Zuma, saying, “Listening to these cancerous, often brilliant albums, one feels like a police reporter or a priest hearing a heartbreaking last confession.” There is certainly merit to this point but I would argue that our interest is more selfish. We don’t seek the confession; we seek understanding. The opportunity to interpret another’s pain so completely allows us to better understand our own feelings when we are forced to endure similar circumstances.
At the crux of this album, lies the title and closing track “Longtime Companion.” It’s here where Smith most effectively blurs the line between the personal and professional. When he sings in the chorus, “I’m going to try to make you love me / I’m going to try to make you care / I’m going to try to make you stay” listeners are left to wonder whether he’s referencing his lost love or his fickle fan base.
The album’s strongest track remains its debut single “Pretend You Love Me,” an acoustic slow roll highlighted by gorgeous flourishes of flute. Smith pleads for the restoration of his marriage, realizing that even feigned love is better than no love at all. “Pretend You Love Me” is as fine a driving song as any in recent memory.
There are times when I wish Smith would wrangle with his feelings less directly. The bitterness and helplessness of tracks like “I See the Void” and “My Mind Messed Up” can be draining. The beauty of an album like Zuma lies in Young’s ability to make a song about Spanish conquistadors double as a discussion on the theft of innocence as he does on “Cortez the Killer.” With the exception of the symbolism found on the Johnny Cash-like foot-stomper “Year of the Cock,” Smith deals with his hard times head on, without filter. Does Longtime Companion rank among the great break-up albums of all time? Maybe not. Is it a captivating account of a man at an emotional crossroads? Most assuredly.
Written by Rob Peoni