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"A break-up record dressed up in country threads

"It's a funny kind of sad joy," drawls Sonny Smith on "I See the Void". On his third album with the Sunsets, the San Francisco songwriter draws heavily on his split with his girlfriend of 10 years. He also goes fully country, yet there's the same easygoing vibe that marked his previous garage and folk-pop tunes. Smith's wistful tug is tempered by breezy tropical and psych twinges on "Pretend You Love Me", jokey animal metaphors on "Year of the Cock" and pronounced lisp on "Sea of Darkness". Ever the slacker, Smith is in no rush whatsoever. But Longtime Companion is an unexpected grower." Doug Wallen, (7/10) — Rolling Stone Magazine (Australia)

"Laced with rueful humor, Sonny Smith's low-key garage rock takes charming country detour " (8/10) SPIN

"Don’t let the name fool you. Despite the sticky-sweet melodies and breezy charm, there’s some darkness lingering underneath Sonny & the Sunsets’ wide-eyed pop. And it’s always been there, no matter what musical hat Sonny Smith tries on. Smith is the bandleader, in every sense of the word. Though he’s a known quantity in his native San Francisco, the world at large is just getting acquainted with Smith’s chameleon-like music. He’s released two Sunsets albums alongside his “100 Records” project, which allows him and a rotating cast of musicians to write and record as made-up bands like Zig Speck & His Specktones or Versatile Kyle. All his recordings are whimsical in the best sense, like finding a trunk full of costumes in a dusty old closet.

The innocence of early rock and roll pumps through Smith’s songs, but they’re largely fueled by anxiety and frustration. These twin themes are especially apparent on Longtime Companion, the third Sunsets album and the first to be recorded following a break-up between Smith and his longtime girlfriend. Appropriately, Smith has donned some new duds for Companion, specifically a cowboy hat and boots. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the Sunsets’ retro mindset (as if no other band has ever lived in the past before). But for Smith, there’s no ironic detachment. He wants to bare his romantic scars, and what better way than to passionately create a country album?

Though since it’s Smith, that passion is understated. He and his band are exceptional at making simple music that hits harder than three chords would suggest. Longtime Companion is recorded in crystal-clear intimacy, somewhere between Nashville and a summer porch jam. The standard guitar-bass-drum line-up is accompanied by pedal steel from time to time, which fills in the emotional spaces of Smith’s weary warble. He always sings with a wink in his voice, but on heavy songs like “I Was Born”—in which he asks, “I know I was born, but am I really here?”—that smirk might be to keep from crying. Things are kept upbeat, with Smith even finding “sad joy” in the ramshackle strummer “I See The Void.” He’s tapping into a long line of country crooners who can find a diamond in a coalmine.

Smith deviates from that line in allowing his band to stretch out musically. The Sunsets certainly don’t shy away from tried-and-true country-isms, be it the bent guitar notes and close harmonies on “Dried Blood” or the honky-tonk piano on the title track. Yet curveballs like the woozy keyboards on the rambling allegory “Year of the Cock” or flutes on “Pretend That You Care” add some spacey variation to an album that could’ve sunk beneath the weight. The slacked-out vibes certainly lag towards the tail end of the second side, but bold strokes aren’t required here—just a a comforting sound. Longtime Companion feels like the first cracked smile after the tears have stopped, somewhere between dusk and the gloom of night. Guess that’s why they’re called the Sunsets." (7.5) — Prefix

""Sonny & the Sunsets explore new genres like snakes shed skin. In the past, the imaginative San Francisco act, led by folksy everyman Sonny Smith, has successfully assumed the sounds of 50′s proto-rock, garage blues, doo-wop, and punk (not to mention Smith’s 100 Albums project, in which he created 200 songs by 100 fictitious bands). On their latest LP, Longtime Companion, Smith and Co. saunter into the land of cheap whiskey and cheatin’ women to deliver a true heartbreak album. Since Smith’s musical heart is rustic and jangly by nature, this country splash should have seemed inevitable. Channeling the fusion of alt-country pioneers, The Sunsets marry outlaw sentiment, Bakersfield’s dirty twang, and folk rock honesty, adding in hints of whimsical psychedelia. And, like any good Californian should, Smith delivers his country-styled heartache with black humor and a casual spirit.

Smith starts his story with “I Was Born”, wrestling with the paralyzing aftershocks of seeing “someone talking to my wife,” and admitting “you know the feeling cuts just like a knife.” An otherwise stripped down honkytonk complete with an old-reliable walking bass and she-did-me-wrong lyrics, the song bursts open with a lush, bittersweet, fluted melody between verses, giving Smith’s confusion (“I was born, but am I really here?”) a pensive place to land. The pace picks up only slightly with “Dried Blood”, but the solemnity endures despite the song’s punkish sneer. “Pretend You Love Me”, budding from the confusion on “I Was Born”, finds Smith grasping at the straws of denial. Like a countrified Astral Weeks tune, the landscape for Smith’s pathetic state is countered with flourishes of verdant sounds, expressing an unspoken optimism.

Eventually, Sonny & the Sunsets utilize country music’s varied styles–Grateful Dead on “Sea of Darkness”, Johnny Cash on “Year of the Cock”, Gram Parsons and Buck Owens on “Rhinestone Sunset”–to tell the time-honored story of a man scorned, a man still pitifully (or rightfully?) convinced he “can make you love me,” which Smith croons on the concluding title track. While Longtime Companion may suffer from infrequent changes in pace and tone, Smith’s archetypal broken heart is articulated kaleidoscopically, and with the authenticity of a grizzled highwayman."" 7/10 Consequence of Sound