Sonny & the Sunsets
Live at Glasslands Gallery
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Can’t say I’ve ever seen a lead singer take on the first few songs of a set without bothering to take out their chewing gum, but, sure enough, there’s Sonny Smith, chomping away Saturday night at Glasslands. He nonchalantly, kind of dickishly requests the lights be turned so low it’s almost black onstage (“Hey, Mr. Soundman, can you turn down the lights? Lower.”) He’s dressed in a plain white t-shirt and jeans. This guy doesn’t give shit about much of anything, I’m pretty sure — and not in the conscious careless way that seems ingrained in Brooklyn culture — he actually doesn’t care. I like to think he’s earned that right. His voice, sunbaked and weathered, is proof of a career that’s taken him around the block more than a few times at this point. Consider his hoards of lo-fi recordings (see: 100 Records, Volume 1 & 2) another bragging right for San Francisco, where he and his Sunsets fit snuggly among the ranks of Ty Segall and the rest of the city’s prolific garage-rock types.
There are no Big Moments during the course of the show, just one perfectly imperfect melody taken from all red-blooded corners of American rock ‘n’ roll: The rockabilly chorus of “Bad Vibes & Evil Thoughts” is played in double-time, the guitar elsewhere in the song gets all bluesy; “Death Cream” comes across like a stroll through the rolling backcountry; the deliberately twangy version of “Stranded” bleeds into honky-tonk territory; and there are, of course, multiple moments indebted to 60s Beach Boys and polka-dot bikinis. An undeniable familiarity runs through all of Sonny & the Sunsets’ material, a quality the four of them seem not all that impressed by, but in all actuality the work of four skilled songwriters/instrumentalists (bass player Ryan Browne especially earns his keep). When they start in on “Teenage Thugs,” a stop-and-go punk jive (the chorus consists entirely of the phrase “teenage thugs”), you feel like you’ve heard it a million times before. Smith has probably played it just as many times, willing himself out of boredom by continuously changing up his vocal inflections and playing everything just a hair slower than on the records.
“Ok, so this is the encore,” he says without leaving the stage. The night ends with the bass-and-drum speak-sung parody “Planet of Women” — maybe the closest thing we’ve got to Liam Lynch’s “Whatever” since Sifl & Olly was on the air — and the perfect embodiment of Sonny & the Sunsets’ effortless talent. The entire song sounds like one big shrug, which is exactly how I want my summer to sound.