In 2010, San Francisco songwriter Sonny Smith unveiled his 100 Records art installation, a sprawling project in which Smith adopted the personae of 100 fictional bands and wrote and recorded singles for each of them. Ranging from reggae to doo-wop, country to garage rock, the project was a decidedly ambitious undertaking, and Smith doesn’t seem to have quite shaken it from his psyche.
Last year’s Hit After Hit marked a return to the low-key garage-pop Smith and his band the Sunsets had been accustomed to since their 2010 debut, Tomorrow Is Alright, reimagining some of Smith’s 100 Records cuts in the band’s own image. Casually synthesizing elements of a myriad of genres, including Modern Lovers pop, country, doo-wop and surf, Sonny and the Sunsets displayed a keen awareness of many musical styles, but played with a relaxed, self-effacing vibe that lent an casual, noncommittal shuffle to the proceedings. Smith isn’t much of a record collector, so he’s not trapped in a library of hyper-specific references.
The band’s third album, Longtime Companion, is ostensibly a country album, but it’s a testament to Smith’s singularity that it mostly just sounds like a Sonny Smith album. Sure, it shuffles along a two-step pulse and comes glazed with plenty of steel-guitar weeping. Recorded after Smith and his girlfriend separated, the record does have a noticeably more wearied sound, and the twangy accoutrements add just the right amount of heartbroken creak and moan to suit the album’s circumstances. The difference is most clear on “Pretend You Love Me,” which appeared on Hit After Hit as a jangly (spiked) soda-shop ballad; here, it’s a staggered, melancholy country-rocker.
Still, even as he takes more prominent cues from Johnny Cash or the Flying Burrito Brothers, Smith can’t upset his defining qualities. His unfussy vocal and wry lyrics can’t help but smirk in the midst of the album’s grimace. And good thing, too. With Longtime Companion, Sonny Smith shows himself to be a stylistic chameleon, never shedding his skin to change its color.