Steve Wilson. On music.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The 2011 Countdown Continues with No. 16, Sonny and the Sunsets

Continuing today, and culminating with REVERBERATIONS number one album of the year on December 31st (if my math is right)*, we’ll be counting down the top twenty-five records of 2011. I’m referring to this countdown as Twenty-five Faves because I have no pretenses about telling you what’s “best.” Sure, I think my taste is better than yours. But nobody died and made me Lester Bangs. And Lester could be arrogant, but I kind of think he would come down on the favorite side of the fave/best dichotomy. His criticism was nothing if not personal.

I've reviewed the majority of these selections. In the event that I have I'll simply recycle the original reviews, sometimes with a little new commentary. If it's a selection I haven't reviewed previously, I will dash off a new, brief, introductory review just for perspective.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)

23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)

22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)

21. Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

Here's a brand spankin' new look at Hit after Hit from Sonny Smith and the Sunsets (Fat Possum Records):

Sonny Smith writes songs. Lots of songs - by way of example, he wrote two-hundred for an art installation called 100 Records, all attributed to fictional artists, all deriving heavily from Fifties and Sixties pop, rock and rhythm ‘n’ blues sounds. His songs are flatly, frankly derivative, but with his retro-sensibility and easy, laconic vocal delivery he puts his own stamp on such idiomatic material. Nowhere is this exemplified better than on the new Sonny and the Sunsets release Hit after Hit.

Top 40-radio in the Sixties purveyed plenty of garbage, just as it does now. But not only was the overall quality of hit radio better in that halcyon era, but the sheer variety of styles and sounds was breathtaking. It’s hard for anyone younger than fifty-five to imagine a time when you might hear Count Five, the Who, Martha and the Vandellas and Buck Owens, all in one set, in between commercial breaks. Smith isn’t old enough to remember this himself. But he’s still nostalgic for it. Like many of his San Francisco garage-rock brethren he’s a rag picker, running a shop full of dusty treasures. Many of those peers assist on Hit after Hit, including John Dwyer from Thee Oh Sees and scene mainstay Kelley Stoltz, who plays drums on the album. It’s an insular, but cooperative crew, all of them somehow stuck on retro sounds, yet pushing the envelope of same.

Enjoy the girl group, ska-tinged balladry of “I Wanna Do It.” Dig the head-down rockers, like “Home and Exile,” with its “Wipeout” drums, sounding like a home-grown, hayseed version of the Who circa Sell Out. And hey, how about the Coasters-Ruben and the Jets (and back out again) irony of the doo-wop gone Vato strut of “Teenage Thugs?” I’m digging the chilled out r & b vamp (think Kinks “Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worrying ‘Bout That Girl”) of “She Plays Yoyo with My Mind.” On songs like “Yoyo” you can hear the subtle arrangement tricks that Smith uses (the drums pick up at 2:00, a shaker part at 2:45 moves things along); throughout HAH he and his merry band devote attention to the little details that give the performances shade and momentum.

Icons like the Stones (“Girls Beware”) and the Velvet Underground (“Reflections on Youth”) are referenced. ‘Heart of Sadness” and “Pretend You Love Me” are lovely mid-tempo pop ballads, the sort of songs that Nick Lowe concocted in his “Pure Pop for Now People” days, the latter with a deeper roots nod to the Everly Brothers.

As a recycler Sonny Smith is an adept. He uses archetypes and forms in fun and inventive ways that elevate his approach beyond pastiche. Someone coming to this music with the kind of sensibilities enflamed by progressive-rock might find it all rather unserious. For me, fun is a serious as it gets.

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