Sonny Smith | Fruitvale (Belle Sound)

cd_sonnysmithSmith half-speaks his songs in a ramble-tamble style that recalls both Lou Reed and Eels' principal Mark Oliver Everett in equal measure, an inherently hip and cynical method of delivery which lends credibility to his street-level vocabulary and seedy subjects.

 

 

 

 

Singer-songwriter Sonny Smith returns with his third LP, a casually ambitious song cycle that paints a vibrant picture of a crime-infested burg where dejected residents struggle to make it from one day to the next. Smith's Fruitvale—an actual neighborhood in Oakland, Calif.—is a place where pit bulls listen to police sirens, spent bottle rockets litter empty doorways, and a nice pair of shoes dangles from a telephone wire. It's a gritty world reminiscent of the one detailed by Lou Reed on his generally overlooked Street Hassle album, and here Smith exhibits a great deal of the civic pride undercut by moral disgust that characterized much of Reed's journey through New York City's less than savory underbelly.

A layered lo-fi production is employed for the set, which ends up sounding sort of like a bedroom folkie's take on Phil Spector's (in)famous "Wall of Sound." Most of the songs are built around simple chords played on either acoustic guitar or piano, and many of them are punctuated by loping basslines and answering vocals supplied by Bloodshot ladies Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor, and Edith Frost. Percussion is kept simple, with tambourine, shakers, and hand drums generally taking the place of a full kit. In spite of taking many of their sonic cues from old Badfinger records, Fruitvale's songs remain cozy things, and Smith's approach to arranging them seems a clever way to split the difference between the measure of intimacy they require in order to function and the demands of the artist's finely honed pop sensibilities (he was aided in this task by ex-Wilco Leroy Bach, who also plays an assortment of instruments on the record's 10 tracks). Smith half-speaks his songs in a ramble-tamble style that recalls both Reed and Eels' principal Mark Oliver Everett in equal measure, an inherently hip and cynical method of delivery which lends credibility to his street-level vocabulary and seedy subjects.

Smith's songwriting talents stand in stark opposition to his near-total obscurity. He is a brightly polished gem of a troubadour whose eye for detail is exceptionally rare, and his songs are populated by characters so outlandish—from the singing grocery store butcher to the seven-foot-tall prostitute on the corner—that it's difficult to imagine them existing only in Smith's fertile imagination. And although it's hardly a novel idea to pair sunny pop melodies with sociopolitical lyrics that often take dark turns—Elvis Costello did it on Armed Forces a quarter of a century ago, and Elliott Smith seemed to sing about suicide and/or addiction every time he picked up a guitar—it's rare that such an exercise is met with this level of success.

Smith's attentive and convincing Fruitvale songs are mostly about shitty things happening to decent people. "Good Folks Bad Folks" tells the sad story of the "good folks [that] live in fear" of all the "bad folks drivin' around and shootin' their guns all over town." "Bad Cop" is all about the "bad cop in the ghetto, shootin' poor folks in the back." "Curtis on the Corner" is, as the title seems to suggest, about a neighborhood drug dealer. In "Mr. Low," a nine-minute epic, Sonny's narrator is infatuated with a whore named Celeste who cajoles him into killing her pimp using a pair of scissors bought at a corner store.

But it's not all doom and gloom, as songs like "Someday Land," a piano ballad that gradually surrenders its pretty melody to an acoustic guitar, are filled with hope and even fleeting contentment. "I'm happy today," Smith sings, "all my troubles are washed away." Fruitvale is a tuneful record about beating the odds under trying circumstances, and is one of the year's most charming and quirky surprises. A | Paul John Little

RIYL: Eels, Lou Reed, Jim White

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply