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Sonny and the Sunsets - Tomorrow is Alright

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Artist: Sonny and the Sunsets

Album: Tomorrow is Alright

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Aug. 30, 2010

A San Franciscan dilettante in his late 30s, Sonny and the Sunsets’ frontman Sonny Smith has tried his hand at many artistic endeavors, from writing prose and plays to making films and composing pop songs. In the early aughts, he released several cult records as a solo act and opened for Neko Case. In the run-up to the CD reissue of Tomorrow is Alright (originally issued last year on Soft Abuse), he’s attracted attention for his ambitious, if gimmicky, art installation 100 Records, which consists of album art, biographies and music for 100 imaginary bands and their one-off singles.

Like notable California “it” bands of the past few seasons — Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and (S&S touring companion) Best Coast — Sonny and the Sunsets straddle pop music’s sometimes ambiguous line between earnest, playful naïveté and calculated, cynical ventriloquism. At its best, the result is productive tension: the listener lets himself go, knowing well that there’s too much cushioning irony for him to fall hard. At its worst, it’s a nagging reminder of the cultural-aesthetic knowingness and gamesmanship that cling fast to — and sometimes alienate the listener from — the music they help deliver to discerning palettes.

With its ramshackle riffs for guitar and piano, raggedly sparse arrangements and ubiquitous “lah lahs,” “nah nahs,” whistles, hand claps and finger snaps, Tomorrow is Alright creates the conspicuously laidback vibe of its place of origin. Smith’s occasionally ridiculous vocal intonation and lyrics enhance this mood; his amateurishly nasal and coy voice borders on parody. The words he delivers only heighten the sense of the absurd. Across songs with titles such as “Death Cream” and “Bad Vibes and Evil Thoughts,” Smith sings fantastical little tales. “I went downtown / All the way downtown / And I took out my tube / And I spread it all around / Duh duh duh, duh duh duh, duh duh / Death cream,” he croons on the former, with harmonic emphasis on “cream.”

Yet, Tomorrow is Alright can be as endearing over time as it may appear cloying on first impression because it so unassumingly assimilates influences that are both disparate and compelling. Led by a rollicking groove of acoustic guitar and hand percussion, the tribal folk-cum-addictive pop of opener and standout “Too Young To Burn” sounds like a campfire sing-along pitched somewhere between Girls and Animal Collective. More pronounced are the imprints of the Kinks and The Velvet Underground. The excellent jaunt “Love Among Social Animals,” for instance, pilfers both Ray Davies’s songwriting and singing style. With similar effectiveness, “Lovin’ on an Older Gal” borrows wholesale from the Velvets, drawing on everything from the guitar sound and riffs of “I’m Waiting for the Man” to Lou Reed’s penchant for speech-singing.

These appropriations (and the record as a whole) are ultimately quite successful in at least one important sense: Whether humorous or ridiculous, earnest or ironic, they are uniformly memorable. With repeated listens, nearly every one of the set’s 10 songs reveals enough clever melodic turns and pop scat-singing to stick in the mind’s ear — lasting well past when the music stops, whether one likes it or not.

By Benjamin Ewing

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Longtime Companion

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Find out more about Fat Possum

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