Sonny & the Sunsets
Talent Night at the Ashram
Polyvinyl Records, 2015
Reviewed by Kent Manthie
On the new CD from Bay Area-based Sonny & the Sunsets, Sonny Smith has written a gang of new tunes that are in the psychedelic vein.
The new album, Talent Night at the Ashram, mixes together a collage-mosaic jumble that really draws you in, with its eclectic and unique style. With the use of both typical rock instruments: guitar, bass, drums, etc., The Sunsets also add a lot of odd sounds made from exotic, African rhythmic artifices, what sounds like a Mellotron (or a synthesizer effect of one). Other instruments that join in on the album include the always interesting to listen to electric sitar, flutes and a variety of keyboards and synthesizer-programmed sounds as well as those rhythm sticks.
If, while listening to Talent Night… you come away with the feeling that it sounded like a soundtrack to a film or at least had some kind of lysergic, “sound=vision” thing to it, well, that’s because Talent Night at the Ashram was, actually, originally intended to be a film project. The idea, at first, was to make a number of short films, that, when shown all back-to-back, would reveal a whole that was more complete than the sum of its parts. But, as the script writing wore on (even as actors were hired and some shooting began), Sonny realized that the scripts he was writing were really more songs than movie scripts and in short order, the film project was scrapped in favor of making an aural adventure that would be cinematic, at its heart.
Filmwise, if you think of Antonioni, Fellini, especially in the mid-60s period (maybe not as crazy as Satyricon), as well as some of the celluloid adventures of The Beatles, etc. and shorter, psychedelic “home” movies, etc. then you can start to understand what Sonny had in mind.
So, now, with the film-that-turned-into-a-record, you can sit and listen to Talent Night, close your eyes and let your imagination soar while meditating to the lush, picturesque, visceral music and make up your own, private mind-movies.
Once the film idea was scrapped in favor of using what had been created so far into a great new album, Sonny Smith recorded the album at his home, in what’s been described as a “communal” effort, which I suppose could mean that there wasn’t one “big-idea-man” there to “produce”, but that the album was done with input from all concerned, including Shayde Sartin, Garrett Goddard, Kelley Stoltz, Rusty Miller and others.
Among the songs here, one that stands out a lot, as being (as far as I can tell) something probably left over from the writing of the film scripts, is “Happy Carrot Health Food Store”, where, in the middle or so, of this 7 minute tune (one of my favorite tunes, by the way), you hear Sonny talking, almost in the background, about his favorite “scenes” in some unnamed film, which made me think it was about one of these unmade films. “Blot Out the Sun” has a cool beat and a groovy, carefree jam to it. “The Application”, the opening cut, is an interesting little song, sung in a sort of Brian Wilson-esque tone. In the song, Sonny sings about his applying to “be a human being” – the neo-proto-psychedelia which is playing along has a kind of Beach Boys timbre, that aforementioned potpourri of African rhythm devices along with some more modern synthesizers in it.
Over all, I’d say Talent Night at the Ashram is, probably, my favorite album (so far?) by Sonny & the Sunsets. The “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” musical free-chaotic formula is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier days of Kevin Barnes’s magical mystery machine, of Montreal (also on Polyvinyl) – except that Sonny & the Sunsets have that distinct Bay Area/West Coast vibe to it; a little heavier, deeper, but not so much that it’s airy textures are weighed down.
All the tunes, up to the finale, “Secret Plot”, have something about them that I either missed or just didn’t find on previous works. But, with the advent of Talent Night, I have given Sonny & the Sunsets a new chance to bliss me out! And this album surely does just that. To find more information on it and/or to purchase it, go to https://www.polyvinylrecords.com – you’ll find this new one, their previous works as well as all the great stuff that Polyvinyl has to offer. So, for now, enjoy – see you at the movies! -KM.