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Sonny Smith continues to excel at simple, low-stakes music done extremely well, with clever touches that don’t reveal themselves on first listen.
The ridiculously fertile San Francisco garage-pop scene is full of people who crank out vast amounts of music and who sound like they’re having fun doing it. And much of the time, Sonny Smith seems to be making more music and having more fun than anyone else. About a year ago, his band Sonny and the Sunsets released the sweet, inventive album Tomorrow Is Alright, and Smith then followed it up with his “100 Records” art installation, in which he wrote and recorded an absurd 200 songs for 100 fictional bands. While he was at it, he issued an EP for one of those fake bands, Earth Girl Helen Brown. And now, after that furious burst of activity, we get the Sunsets’ sophomore album. That’s Lil-Wayne-in-2006 levels of productivity.
But Smith never sounds like someone rushing to crank out literally hundreds of songs. His songs have an enormously appealing loose, homespun quality– muffled, refracted, self-aware takes on the starry-eyed, innocent sounds you hear coming from oldies radio. Smith’s voice is warm and laconic; you can practically hear a goofy stoner grin on his face a lot of the time. He allows himself a few guitar solos, but unless the song is an instrumental, he likes to keep them to three seconds or less. A lot of the fun in his records is hearing him interact with his backing vocals– wordless ooh-ahh harmonies on some songs, equally flat female interjections on others. The whole thing sounds like something they could’ve bashed out in a long afternoon, killing time waiting for a midnight screening of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
This, then, is simple, low-stakes music, but it’s simple and low-stakes music done extremely well, with clever touches that don’t always reveal themselves on first listen. Plenty of tiny instrumental flourishes show just how deeply Smith and his band have studied their oldies-radio fare: The lightly tribal floor-tom rumbles on “She Plays Yoyo With My Mind” [#script:http://pitchfork.com/media/backend/js/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js]|||||| , the nifty little surf-guitar riffage on “Home and Exile [#script:http://pitchfork.com/media/backend/js/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js]|||||| “, the heartbroken jangle on “Pretend You Love Me”. And Smith has a lyrical mischievousness about him, too. One line on “Don’t Act Dumb” sums up four decades of lovesick garage-rock frustration in a few words: “I’m in love, love with you baby/ I am dumb and so are you.” And “Teenage Thugs” has to be one of the first punk songs in history that doesn’t identify with juvenile corner toughs but with the grown adult weenies who are afraid of them.