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.