Sonny & The Sunsets Hurl The Past Into The Afterworld (Like Ya Do)

Sonny & The Sunsets
Antenna To The Afterworld
Polyvinyl

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Sonny Smith is one of the busiest musicians on this planet or any other. He’s also prolific enough to give Robert Pollard pause. After crashing blues bars in small-town Colorado at the age of eighteen to play Jimmy Yancey covers (like ya do), he busked up and down the Central American peninsula before fetching up in San Francisco, writing screenplays as he went which eventually turned into long narrative songs turning up on early albums This Is My Story, This Is My Song from 2002 and the Jolie Holland-guesting Sordid Tales Of Love And Woe, Sweet Lorraine a year later. After various residencies around the Bay Area, Smith was commissioned by Watchword Literary Magazine to produce One Act Plays, an album featuring Holland, Neko Case, Edith Frost, Mark Eitzel and too many others to mention. In 2007, in collaboration with Wilco’s Leroy Bach, Kelly Hogan, Frost and more, would come Fruitvale but the big enchilada would come in 2009 (after, that is, the release of Tomorrow Is Alright, the first record to include the Sunsets) when he was commissioned by the Headlands Center for the Arts to create 100 Records, a project in which he invited one hundred artists to create the picture sleeves for 45s of one hundred fictitious bands and then proceeded to write and record 200 songs in a dizzying range of styles to coincide with every made-up single. Like ya do. The show, which included every sleeve along with a jukebox in which patrons could pick songs from the sleeves displayed, ran seven weeks in San Francisco before heading on the road to Austin and then New York. As there is obviously a shortage of laurels in the Bay Area on which this man can rest, the band toured the Fat Possum-reissued Tomorrow album through 2010 before releasing Hit After Hit in 2011. You’d think this might catch us up but of course it doesn’t. Last year saw them sign to Polyvinyl and release Longtime Companion, Sonny’s break-up record presented, naturally, in the only style capable of doing it justice, C&W, for which he enlisted his country band The Fuckaroos to help bring the twang of authenticity. So, you’re thinking, it’s 2013, must be time for a new Sonny & The Sunsets record, and right you are.

A return to the shores of indie-dom, Antenna To The Afterworld  is a 35-minute blast of new-wavey, post-punky accents that trawls through themes of death and (possibly alien) afterlife that, in sonic spirit anyway, barely triggers thoughts of either. We begin at submarine depths, a bass, a flat synth tone, a chimed guitar chopped into single bits but a quick couple of measures later we rise to the jangling surface, that guitar going into full chime mode, drums punching the clock and starting work, the bass climbing into a melodious loop and here comes Sonny singing, his drawling power-pop vocals in league with Kurt Vile’s and the whole thing carries forward with a seductive, narcotized energy, Big Star slowed down just a titch to, say, 29 1/3 RPM. The song is “Dark Corners” and by the time the watery – and fun! – pop nightmare of an organ solo comes swimming along just past the 3-minute mark, the fix is in, the ear is swayed, the album’s got you and it would probably be best to just give up resistance straightaway. As acts of acquiescence go, it’ll be among your most rewarding.

Irresistibility abounds on Antenna. First single “Palmreader” merits the choice by virtue of a boardwalk lope of a bassline  (bass player James Finch Jr is convincingly this album’s secret weapon) overlaid by both a sunny summer arrangement and a playground-guitar melody line, all gleefully belying – nay, defying – the titular charlatan’s pronouncement that “the end is near.” “Primitive” mines the Cramps, mines Gun Club, mines the Heartbreakers as covered by Jonathan Richman and forges them into a garage pop nugget all its own.

If, gun to head, one was forced to box Sonny & The Sunsets – at this point, anyway – inside four walls of reference, one could do worse than that last paragraph. “Void” exhibits similar markers with tossed-in poppy handclaps, “Path Of Orbit” and “Natural Acts” both hew more toward the back end of our equation, one a lament of the heart with mic’ed acoustics, the latter, built on a Casio-sounding keyboard riff, harnessing a bit of Human Switchboard into the mix, evoking a slice of Mudd Club or, this being San Francisco, Mabuhey Gardens on a chilly Thursday night.

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Unexpected quirks keep popping up on this record like antsy poltergeists (or extra-terrestrials, I suppose) – the treated guitar shenanigans at the end of “Mutilator” like some sort of Residents cameo; the spare parts intro to the moving “Girl On The Street” that sets the mood to ‘unsettling,’ an unease that stays even as the verse/chorus/verse reverts to the kind of Brill Building pop structure that Johnny Thunders used to take the edge off (a move just as effective here, by the way); the avant-pop keyboard breakout in “Primitive;” the spooked-out sound effects that jump out from behind the gravestones in “Natural Acts” – thus ensuring that paying attention pays off. Not your average power-popped pop-punk space-garage new wavey post-punk album, then. No, indeed not.

Though both “Earth Girl” and “Green Blood,” Antenna..‘s last two tracks, fall a bit prey to thematic overreaching  (a too-busy use of space-age clichés mars the first, while “Green Blood” takes the novelty-song boy/girl narrative device a little too far), the thrill and sway of the record remain. But catch it now and be quick about it. 2014’s just around the corner, and you can bet Sonny already began writing the next record before he was completely done with this one. Like ya do. 

—Dave Cantrell