Folk-Pop Songsmith Sonny Smith's Beach-Bum Babylon
There was this trailer out by the beach in San Francisco where folk-pop fixture Sonny Smith used to record all his music. He recently told me the rig's gone now, but I still imagine him holed up inside, putting all the voices in his head to an acoustic guitar as the waves break off in the distance. In the same way that certain sleeping bags will always smell like campfire, Smith's songs carry a permanent whiff of urban beach bum. They're beautifully rustic numbers, roughly polished and sun-kissed even when the subject turns melancholy. Smith's voice has a lackadaisical quality that makes this playwright, artist, filmmaker, and musician sound like more of a slacker than his track record reveals.
After releasing various solo records, a short film, and one-act plays, Smith embarked on his most ambitious mission, his 100 Records project, in 2009. For that one, he created fake bands populated by talented scenesters in the San Francisco garage and folk worlds—including Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer, the Fresh & Only's Tim Cohen, and Ty Segall. Those fantasy acts recorded real Mexican punk, sci-fi country, spoken-word, and doo-wop singles written by Smith. He also paired up with renowned visual artists, Chris Johanson and Rex Ray among them, to create album covers for the 7-inches. It was a massive undertaking that became a traveling gallery show involving a handmade jukebox. While Smith didn't technically hit 100 fleshed-out songs on the mark, he nonetheless proved that his magical storytelling ability isn't bookended by genre.
Outside the gallery, you can follow Smith with his Sonny & the Sunsets posse as they make it feel like summer at an AM radio station year round. Their latest release, Hit After Hit, has a warm 1960s glow and a wry lyrical sensibility. "I Wanna Do It" is the ultimate bonfire theme, about swimming in lust and the ocean, while "The Bad Energy from LA Is Killing Me" is an instrumental trip down a psychedelic thoroughfare. My favorite anthem on this collection of Hits, though, is the bouncy ballad "Pretend You Love Me," where smartassness becomes a bit wistful inside Smith's beach-bum Babylon.