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Bizarre? Scrappy? Deranged? Sonny & the Sunsets’ latest record sees them in perhaps their strangest and most lyrically explorative phase yet.

A big soup of sonic ideas that wouldn’t normally be glued together, the songs on Talent Night at the Ashram make a large collage that mixes cinematic stories of fringe characters.

Initially envisioned as a film project, each song was originally a short film that, when strung together, formed a feature-length movie.

As Sonny Smith was writing the scripts and hiring the actors (even shooting a few of the clips), the scripts began to morph into songs.

Equal parts Fellini and Os Mutantes, Talent Night at the Ashram is cinematic in its storytelling and kaleidoscopic in its mixing and merging of musical genres.

On album opener 'The Application', Smith applies to be a human being to the tune of Beach Boys harmonies, ragtag beats and ‘80s synths.

'Happy Carrot Health Food Store' tells an epic saga of grocery store employees set to a soundtrack that takes listeners on a psychedelic odyssey with elements of jazz and a hallucinogenic sequence including a conversation with a girlfriend swimming in his beer glass, or is that a dog?

‘60s folk, electric sitars, flutes, and myriad other sounds help accentuate tales of professional bowlers in desperate need of a strike ('Icelene’s Loss'), a mansion that houses every woman Smith has ever known ('The Secluded Estate'), and Occupy meetings ending in bad love ('Secret Plot to Destroy the Underground').

Recording was a communal effort mostly done at Smith’s home on this tape machine with musicians such as Shayde Sartin (The Fresh & Onlys), Garret Goddard (King Tuff), Kelley Stoltz, Rusty Miller, Ian McBrayer, and more.

Pairing uniquely off-the-wall stories with an ambitious musical scope, Talent Night at the Ashram finds Smith once again securing his status as one of today’s most arrestingly inventive songwriters.

1) The Application  2) Cheap Extensions  3) The Secluded Estate  4) Talent Night at the Ashram  5) Alice Leaves for the Mountains  6) Happy Carrot Health Food Store  7) Blot Out the Sun  8) Baby Jokin  9) Icelene's Loss  10) Secret Plot
 




“Restless Bay Area songwriter Sonny Smith formed his ramshackle collective Sonny & the Sunsetsaround his endless stream of songs, producing so much inventive, homespun music he went so far as to write and record 200 original songs for a conceptual art show in 2010. While a far cry from some of those high concept one-off tunes, the more refined fare of Sonny & the Sunsets' full-length albums can sound just as ambitious, creative, and strange, with Smith's mind always turning out a blurry whir of various characters, scenes, and sonic pictures.

With fifth album Talent Night at the Ashram, Smith again collects some friends to fill out his home-recorded musings, this time spinning ten songs with more cinematic aspirations, each exploring different scenarios that feel like plots to tiny screenplays and bending styles on almost every song. The album begins with a Beach Boys-esque swell of a cappella harmonies that gives way to toy synth leads and breezy chord progressions on "The Application." Smith's production is deceptively laid-back and airy from the very start of the album. Lazy melodies and pick-up band playing give the album a loose feel that willfully obscures its musical density.

Each song employs an almost completely different approach or instrumentation, the phased-out FM radio pop of "Alice Leaves for the Mountains" blending seamlessly into the Kinks-y exotica of "Happy Carrot Health Food Store." Sounds are hidden in the corners of Talent Night at the Ashram, with Mellotron tones, 12-string folk-rock guitar leads, and reverb-coated percussion all buried beneath Smith's hook-heavy ruminations. The dabbling with synthesizers that began on 2013's Antenna to the Afterworld continues here, notably on '80s-synth pop-tinged numbers like "Cheap Extensions."

Even though listening closely enough on some songs reveals Smith shouting out the changes to his band, the collision of off-the-cuff recording techniques and intricate songwriting produces another colorful chapter of Sonny & the Sunsets' tireless and always beautiful work.” —All Music ****

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“There’s a moment on Talent Night at the Ashram when singer Sonny Smith is conversing melodramatically with a dog. "Why did you go?" he asks it sadly, receiving whining barks in response. "Well, I’m going to swallow you," he replies before seemingly directing his voice back to whoever is listening in on their conversation. "And then it pans and it goes into this other scene that felt much more artificial," he finishes before the song teeters back into a psychedelic jam session of electric guitar and reverb.

The dog mini-drama is just a little taste of what Talent Night at the Ashram could have been had it come to fruition in its original format. Sonny and the Sunsets' fifth album was supposed to be a short film but after shooting pieces with actors, Sonny Smith realized the project was clearly becoming an album and ditched the plan altogether to construct a record.

Towards the end of the 2000s, a time-portal to 1960’s garage rock must have opened, because out came Thee Oh Sees, White Fence, and Sonny Smith. And while his early early contemporaries only got louder, Smith’s psych music has cooled to a still vintage-sounding, folk-tinged mellow, like a crunchier Mac DeMarco. Smith has always been less concerned with crafting the most fuzzed out rock jams and more with telling the best stories. Every song on the band’s latest, Antenna to the Afterworld, was some sort of hyper-detailed space-age mythology, full of sword-swallowing girls and green blood-splattered martian murders. His sun-kissed record Longtime Companion had him at his best Bob Dylan impression, crooning about his babe the divorcee and reminding everyone of their mortality, as if he were dispelling wisdom around an invisible campfire. So it’s surprising that Sonny and the Sunsets' latest isn’t totally batshit weird. Perhaps its cinematic intentions left Smith toning down his fantastic visions because Talent Night at the Ashram is grounded in a very palatable reality, one that harkens back to the band’s first two albums. But that isn’t to say this record isn’t without its surrealist moments. In "Cheap Extensions", Smith follows a girl he spotted in a grocery store by trailing her strange, long hair. In "The Secluded Estate", he speaks of a bizarre house filled with all the women he’s ever known and how scary a house it really is. Smith seems to consistently approach the female sex with the curiosity of a wide-eyed 10-year-old, but in a way that is ultimately charming rather than grating.

The stories Smith chooses to tell on Talent Night at the Ashram are mini-character studies seeking to answer what it means to be a put-together human. Whether he’s dwelling on a very private girl’s life on "Alice Leaves for the Mountains" or the stressed eccentric Icelene on the folksy, Kurt Weisman-esque "Icelene’s Loss", Smith tries to figure out his own characters like puzzles. The seven minute-long "Happy Carrot Health Food Store" plays like a kooky Richard Scarry book, a laundry list in pointing out hippie passersby that could set Smith on the fast track to pulling a Jonathan Richman in the children’s music industry. "Shannon who outworks everyone but always messes shit up," he sings, "Why is she so terrible with all the customers?"

There’s indirectness to Smith’s delivery on this record, his voice sleepy and layered on each song. He’s usually a voyeur in these songs, not the main character, grasping for signifiers of other people’s normality (long hair, loud voices, happy homes) as he tries to figure out his own. Whereas on Smith’s last record he was battling the aliens, on Talent Night at the Ashram it sounds like he’s just become one, slinking through grocery stores and peeking into houses trying to pin down what everyone’s deal is. "I filled out the application to be a human being," Smith sings on the album’s opening song to a girl who might as well be the whole world. "I hope my papers go through. " ” — Pitchfork (7/10)

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“Sonny Smith is often lumped in with his San Francisco garage rock peers. But while San Fran musicians Kelley Stoltz and the Fresh & Onlys Shayde Sartin pitch in, there is a sense of mysticism on the fifth Sonny and the Sunsets record that differentiates it from much of the three-chord rock coming out of the city. With elements of glam and soothing, Beach Boysesque pop, Smith weaves a fantastical web of tracks originally conceived as short films, giving Talent Night At The Ashram a film score quality.

Naturally, Smith's 60s bedroom acoustic folk is still on display, but also so much more: the summertime jangle of opener The Application has a charming doo-wop twist, while a heavy mod influence can be heard in clap-along Alice Leaves For The Mountains. Smith has fashioned the record as one for every season: like films you feel compelled to watch again and again, it has a range of emotions, all showcasing Smith as one of the most unheralded songwriters out there today.” — Now (8/10)

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- “It’s tempting to take Sonny Smith at his word on Talent Night at the Ashram. The chameleonic Smith (now that he mentions it) is a bit of a shaman as a songwriter: mysterious, challenging and exotic, yet for the ready-to-be-converted, a revelation unlike any other.

In terms of sound alone, Smith’s last two albums, the country-rock breakup chronicle Longtime Companion and the spaced-out synth-funk of Antenna to the Afterworld do little to prepare the listener for the off-kilter folk-rock of Talent Night at the Ashram. But in Smith’s inventive songwriting hand, it all makes sense. Or at least makes for another wild journey.

Starting with “The Application,” the album traces Smith’s imaginary journey from normal outsider to abnormal insider. From its first notes, Talent Night at the Ashram eschews the realm of color-by-numbers rock ‘n’ roll and according-to-reality songwriting. “I filled out the application to be a human being,” Smith sings, and the surreal train is away from the station.

“Cheap Extensions” cranks up the psychedelic influences, its twisting melody anchored by a rumbling bassline, with guitars and synthesizers dancing in and out as the song meanders forward.

The title track is full of characters, a bizarre mélange of soul-searchers paraded around by a carnival organ. It’s at the heart of the cinematic aspirations Smith held for the project, a series of short films that collage into a feature film. But while the scripts became songs and the film became an album, a portion of that cinematic foundation remains, breathing life into the songs.

“Happy Carrot Health Food Store” is the album’s seven-minute centerpiece, an absurdist take on the grocery store. More than a little indebted to magical realism, the song takes its time with hallucinogenic detours as well as overly detailed descriptions of the staff. But it’s Smith’s melody on the chorus “It’s a natural health food store” that makes the strongest lasting impression, the catchy cherry on top of so much absurdity.

Weirdness for weirdness’ sake isn’t exactly rare in rock music. But Sonny Smith’s songwriting makes its weirdness fit into a grander design, and Talent Night at the Ashram stretches that ability to new heights.

If Antenna to the Afterworld found its roots in the space glam of David Bowie,Talent Night at the Ashram finds Smith chasing down the more bizarre side of the Kinks. It’s an album that understands the value of both journey and destination and when the going gets weird, amazingly everything is right where it needs to be.” — Paste (7.6)

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“Like many similarly prolific artists, Sonny Smith seems to release nearly everything he records, warts and all. Having released five albums proper in nearly as many years, not to mention innumerable other projects in which he’s played a hand, one would not fault Smith for simply resting on his laurels and phoning it in. But Talent Night at the Ashram, while many things, is anything but that.

Featuring a loose collection of shabby, ramshackle pop songs at times slightly improvisational and always in the moment, much of Talent Night at the Ashram feel like a series of first takes or even rehearsal demos. But it’s this oftentimes peculiar, rough-hewn quality that helps elevate the album from being a self-indulgent mess to a charmingly irreverent stab at lo-fi psychedelia.

Heavily reverbed, these scruffy tracks harken back to the freewheeling days of the mid-‘60s when myriad new sounds and recording technologies were being explored well beyond their originally intended purposes. From multi-tracked, Beach Boys-esque harmonies to backwards guitar, nearly every trick is explored to varying degrees of success throughout the album. There’s a lived-in, aged quality to these songs and their production within which you can almost trace the dust accumulation.

Woozy vocals and sluggish tempos help obscure any sort of melodic immediacy Talent Night at the Ashram may present, requiring several listens for the full, almost hallucinogenic quality of the music to take hold. This lack of immediacy, however, tends to work in their favor, requiring a deeper level of investment on the part of the listener. Casual listens will lose the melodies and hooks that eventually spring forth. All the appropriate components are there, they simply require a little extra parsing.

The epic “Happy Carrot Health Food Store” (a song just as granola as its title would suggest) features a jarring transition from 4/4 on the verses to 6/8 on the choruses that doesn’t quite work. Coming as it does squarely in the middle of the album and running over seven minutes, it tends to drag down the rest of the material here. While a noble experiment in suite-like song structure, they’re simply a bit too loose and haphazard in their performance to be able to convincingly pull off these changes. The tempo varies wildly between the two sections resulting in a push-pull feel that sounds as though the song could fall apart at any moment.

By trying to cram so many ideas, including an extended circular exploratory freakout jam behind an extended spoken word passage, their overall ambition shines through. But they lack the necessary acumen to successfully execute their more progressive, psychedelic tendencies. It’s a bit too wandering and aimless to fully land. Throughout and on previous albums, Sonny & the Sunsets are at their best when they favor brevity in their sonic explorations.

As with the early work of label mates Of Montreal, there are moments of delightfully lo-fi psychedlia and sonic weirdness that never quite work, but are able to largely get by on charm alone. The ideas are plentiful throughout; however, they simply don’t always have the structural solidity and quality of material to be able to properly support their intentions.

But it’s not all swinging for the fences and ultimately coming up short. Album highlight “Icelene’s Loss” features several lovely soft psych instrumental passages coupled with one of the more immediate melodies on Talent Night at the Ashram. Placing this alongside some of his group’s less than successful experiments further reflects Smith’s assuredness as an artist, willing to present noble failures alongside magnificent successes with equal confidence.

If nothing else, Sonny Smith is wildly ambitious, taking chances with his group’s arrangements, often in performances that feel both in the moment and liable to fall apart at any time. This sense of instability permeates the record, leaving the listener with an appropriate sense of anxiety that perfectly compliments the plethora of minor key melodies lazily floating through the jangle of guitars and seas of reverb. Talent Night at the Ashram is ultimately yet another fascinating release by an artist whose ideas seem as boundless as his ambition. It’s simply a matter of everyone else around him being able to keep up.” — Pop Matters (7/10)

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“The collected works of Sonny Smith are a serialized adventure, not a traditional rock discography, so each new album warrants a quick recap. When last we heard from this multi-talented San Francisco weirdnik, on the final track of 2013’sAntenna To The World, he was down in the dumps after a love triangle involving an android and her cyborg husband. At least Smith got to visit space, where cosmic rays gave his scraggily garage rock a groovy synth-pop glow.

Before playing spaceman, Smith donned a cowboy hat for 2012’s Longtime Companion, an album of old-school country tunes. This latest episode is neither a sci-fi sequel nor another Western—it’s actually 10 mini-episodes, each tracking a story that began life as a film script. Smith ultimately decided these vignettes would work best as songs, so he scrapped his movie project, picked up a guitar and some analog synths, and enlisted some friends (Kelley Stoltz, Fresh & Onlys member Shayde Sartin, and so on) to serve as this year’s Sunsets. The cinematic versions of these tales would’ve flipped some wigs, but even as super-smiley psych-pop teasers, tunes like “The Secluded Estate” and “Alice Leaves For The Mountains” are pocket universes worth getting lost in.

On the seven-minute “Happy Carrot Health Food Store,” Smith uses far-out fuzz guitar, handclaps, and vintage keyboards to tell the story of some hippie grocers looking for love and the meaning of life. Wayne in produce apparently has all the answers, so maybe he can explain why Smith breaks the fourth wall near the end of the song and chats from his director’s chair with a barking dog swimming in his glass of beer.

That doggy cameo is Smith at his most cutesy and precious; usually, he’s lighter with the absurdist touches but every bit as sweet. On “Cheap Extensions”—essentially Joe Jackson’s jazzy New Wave fave “Steppin’ Out” fried up with a side of kraut—Smith assures a girl with fake hair that his love is real. On the frilly, pastoral “Icelene’s Loss,” he slips on a paisley bowling shirt and roots hard for a professional roller facing more than just pins.

Does Icelene get her mojo back? Does the dude in “The Application” get to become a genuine human being, since he and his band of Beach Boys-esque harmonizers ask so nicely? And what of those conspirators in “Secret Plot,” a hard-edged guitar song with dainty string, acoustic-guitar, and piano flourishes? Don’t count on Sonny for the answers. Better ask Wayne in produce.” — A.V. Club

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