Sonny Smith/Sonny & the Sunsets
100 Records, Vol. 3
Reviewed by Kent Manthie
Sonny Smith is a very interesting character. He may be one of the most prolific talents you’ve never heard of. He’s been described as a “vivid and idiosyncratic storyteller in the grand narrative tradition of Tom Waits and Randy Newman”.
Born in San Francisco in 1972, Sonny moved to Gunnison, CO when he was seventeen, already an established musician, he started making a living by playing piano in some of the local clubs in the Gunnison area. After two years of doing that he moved to Denver, where he started giving his performing his all by playing these “attention-grabbing” sets that lasted 4-5 hours at area clubs including The Mercury Café & Muddy’s Coffeehouse.
In the years to come Smith refused to settle down in any particular place, traveled around and lived a nomadic existence until he ended up in Costa Rica, on an organic farm while simultaneously “busking up and down the Pacific Coast”.
This era in Smith’s life yielded a plethora of songs, prose and even a screenplay or two, while 1996 found him back in San Francisco and on his return to The City, Sonny traded in his piano for a guitar. Eventually, in 2000 Smith had a big stock of material to choose from as well as his ever-evolving style which led to his debut CD, Who’s the Monster, You or Me? In 2000 he also wrote and directed a film short, Kid Gus Man and the following year saw him writing a regularly-appearing column in the Bay Area paper, The New Mission Newspaper, entitled: “Steppin’ Out”.
There is a really long history lesson here: in 2003 an independent, San Francisco-based label, Jackpine Social Club released This is My Story, This is My Song. At this point, Smith had moved to Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
In 2005 Smith received a 3-month residency at San Francisco’s Headlands Center for the Arts, where he re-recorded “Sweet Lorraine” and “One Act Plays” (Secret Seven Records) and had some guests show up for a few sit-ins, including former American Music Club frontman, Mark Eitzel and Edith Frost. Then, in 2006 he spent the summer touring with Neko Case.
By 2007 Smith formed his band Sonny & the Sunsets, featuring a revolving door of bandmates. Multi-instrumentalist Kelley Stoltz was part of the band, as was Tahlia Harbour (The Dry Spells), John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees), Tim Cohen and Shayde Sartin (Skygreen Leopards). 2010 saw the release of the band’s full-length debut, Tomorrow is Alright, on Fat Possum Records.
2010 also was the year when The Sunsets participated in Smith’s live project: the “100 Records” show, put on in San Francisco. 100 different artists took part in this elaborate project, creating covers for albums by fictional bands for a series of 7” records, all featuring music written by Sonny.
Now, his current CD 100 Records, Vol. 3 compiles 15 songs of his from the 7” “100 Records” project. Each song is credited to one of the fictional bands that were created with the help of all the aforementioned artists.
The music on this CD is totally Sonny Smith, though: a country-folk mélange, with a pop veneer, an admixture of pop-folk (or folk-pop?) and a twinge of old Country music, from the late 50s and 60s. All the songs clock in at an average of around 3 minutes and each is unpretentious, straight-from-the-heart music that is emblematic of a nomadic personality, one whose been all over and enjoys telling stories, amusing allegories, romantic interludes and the like.
While the tunes and Mr. Smith’s style might not be the edgy introspection or goofy irony that is a stereotype of much of what is lumped into the category of “indie music”, even though “indie” is not a genre, but rather an existential essence, the antithesis of the corporate-schlock world. There are many different styles and genres to be found in the independent music world.
Anyway, here’s hoping that more people will take notice with 100 Records Vol. 3, an eclectic collection formed with the help of a fertile imagination. One interesting side note, I remember when I was a kid, since I’ve been into music – mainly rock – my whole life (since at least age 3), I would doodle in notebooks, etc and with the long-lasting dream of having my own band, I’d create my own fictitious rock bands, complete with hand-drawn record albums, liner notes and made up band member names. This is one memory which was evoked when first getting 100 Records Vol. 1 and discovering what the whole thing was about. The one thing, though, that Sonny Smith did was to write some fantastic songs to go along with the fictitious bands.
Well – ENJOY! -KM