For years, Sonny Smith, with and without the Sunsets, has been turning out a ton of youthful and light tunes, incorporating aspects of whimsy into his odd indie rock music to create a genre all its own. Talent Night At The Ashram marks yet another album for Sonny and company, but this time around, a running thread of melancholy and seriousness runs through with the whimsy, creating an album exploring the relativity of normalcy.
The overall sound on Talent Night At The Ashram continues in classic Sonny & The Sunsets style: soft indie rock with a touch of whimsy, but elements on this album make it feel slightly like a stripped down approach to glam rock, a-la Ariel Pink, but with more subtlety and nuance. The guitars are twangy and distorted, there’s a heavy reliance on piano or synth riffs that runs through and under everything, and Sonny’s vocals seem as distant as ever. Opening “The Application,” gives you a brief insight into this transition, as the song meanders along, with Sonny opening with the lyrics “I filled out the application to be a human being,” underscored by a twee synth riff, creating a rosy sound that’s juxtaposed by the solemn lyrics Sonny spins. This is where the gravity of album lies, and it works well for the band.
Sonny continues his tradition of storytelling, as most of these tracks tell the tale of some, often titled woman and her thrills and spills in daily life. You get the obvious ones, like “Alice Leaves For The Mountains,” and “Icelene’s Loss,” in which the title characters are the main focus of the songs. As you delve deeper into the album, it seems that each song talks about matters of daily life. Take centerpiece and main attraction track “Happy Carrot Health Food Store,” which listens more like a multi-act play, with its distinctive movements. The first of which gives you classic Sonny, setting up the stage with exposition of this imaginary, or perhaps real, natural health food store that you enter “through a mystical door.” This opening brings the eclectic glam rock, with clip-clopping percussion and Sonny’s faded vocals. Then you transition to the next act, where the band really kicks in and you’re greeted with vast and detailed imagery of the characters that work there, and when the band launches into its wirey guitar chorus and following instrumental break down, you’re completely hooked into this weird little play. The ending acts gives you Sonny talking with a barking dog, which, oddly enough, feels like the only natural end to this exercise in the sometimes mundane, yet meaningful nature of daily life.
Talent Night At The Ashram walks the line of sincerity and irony with a smirk and a wink, and sometimes an outright grin. Admittedly, this album takes a little work to enjoy: the music is subtle and not overtly becoming on first listen, and I found myself needing a few spins around before I could really sink my teeth into the tracks. However, once I got on board, the album really opened up and revealed that Sonny & The Sunsets somehow still have a bit more up their sleeves to give to you. Spend some time with this record and get lost in its subtleties.