Amidst the exodus of the San Francisco’s once-vibrant garage rock scene, Sonny and the Sunsets have stayed behind to brave the fog (and rising rent prices). For the past half-decade, the group has provided easily the most entertaining take on the West Coast beach-rock sound. Bandleader Sonny Smith possesses all the offbeat humor and dry delivery of Jonathan Richtman, with which he tells gonzo stories of homicidal aliens and lovesick cyborgs. And even as local heroes Ty Segall and John Dwyer hightail it to Los Angeles, Smith and company remain by the Bay to mine inspiration in the weird hallucinatory vibes of Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park.
Talent Night at the Ashram sticks to the band’s tried-and-true formula of pairing off-the-wall songwriting with breezy melodies and vintage 60’s sounds. “The Application”, a robot’s plea for his application to become human be accepted, opens with lush Pet Sounds-esque vocal harmonies, carefree acoustic guitars and wandering analog synthesizer lines. The robot laments, “And I lit my telephone and answer my cigarette / And started to weep cause I am a joke”, highlighting a comic surrealism that runs throughout the record. “The Secluded Estate” recounts a truly scary vision of a house filled with all the women Smith has ever known, while “Blot out the Sun” describes a man suddenly taken to screaming in madness on a sunny day, represented by an almost childish mid-song synth freakout.
According to Smith, each song on the album was originally conceived as a storyline for a project of related short films. This is most apparent in “Happy Carrot Health Food Store”, a kind of deranged meter-shifting samba, which chronicles the daily lives of store employees including, “Pam, in the office with the pencil mustache / Always short on cash” and “Paul in shipping who tells jokes / Wonders if Liz still likes him”. The song descends into a psychedelic spoken word jam as Smith paints a melodramatic scene in which the main character asks his dog, who’s swimming in his beer, “Where did you go?” The dog answers in whines and barks before our protagonist decides to swallow him. Smith goes on to describe, “And then it pans and it goes into this other scene that felt much more artificial”.
Underlying all of these bizarro storylines is the common thread of a day-to-day human struggle. Whether it is Smith confronted by a house full of his exes or the robot (is he a robot?) trying to figure out his phone and cigarette, each of the characters deal with that unavoidable, nagging anxiety of exactly who we are and what our relationship is to the rest of the world.
Talent Night at the Ashram may not be much of a departure for the band, but with this album they once again succeed in utilizing the surreal as a means to explore human connection. The easy melodies, shimmering guitars and general strangeness all focus to enhance the emotional scope of Smith’s songwriting. The garage-rock landscape may have lost the excitement it had only a few years ago, but this album makes it clear that Sonny and the Sunsets are poised to keep rock and roll weird in San Francisco and beyond.
Written by Ethan Varian
OurVinyl | Contributor