Day 1 with Talent Night at the Ashram:
Often you’ll hear a record that makes you wish you were somewhere else, at some other time. “If only I’d heard that Sugarcubes album in March of 1991, whilst simultaneously driving some mid- to large-sized SUV cross-country and slurping down a tall glass of raw egg yolks,” or “If only I’d been born before 1991.” A good song is potent enough to transport even the squarest, most unimaginative individual to Neptune and back. Sometimes a song or a record will make its way into your life as an isolated experience, alien music intended for alien ears meant to soundtrack a pocket of one’s insulated and personal space-time continuum. You already are “somewhere,” and the music only makes sense because of it, in a welcome moment of right place/right time synchronicity. You think to yourself, “This record sounds like Seattle today, because I am in Seattle and this song is about mountains and I’m gazing at the Cascades right now,” and/or “I’m not sure I would have heard this music had Mercury been in not-retrograde.” (For fear of seeming pedantic, I should note that I am actually in Seattle currently, visiting relatives. Also, Mercury is doin’ its thing. It’s bleak, but cozy.) The rain in Seattle may as well be made of blue flannel and Nirvana melodies, because that’s how I’ll always think of it. I’m drinking a bottle of cold-brew Stumptown coffee and I’ve got “Alice Leaves for the Mountains” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ new album on loop.
My initial reactions/associations:
1. The next time I hear Sonny and the Sunsets, my memory’s hand will run itself along the arched back of Pacific Northwestern Sadness and re-entangle its legs with the Sensual Alaskan King Crab Legs I ate for dinner last night.
2. A primary reference point is only your primary reference point until a replacement reference point comes along. In recent years, my reference point for mountains, specifically, has been the time I drove to Bat Cave, North Carolina, with two dear friends just after New Year’s, 2012. It was a Cormac McCarthy January, with a handle of George Dickel and our little bonfire and our somber talk of demonic encounters and our tiny space heater. Our 8’ by 8’ cabin and its twin beds without sheets. Dan Reeder on the car stereo and icy river water we wanted to drink but didn’t. The perfume I wore because my friend loved it, so I loved it. I’ll always think of those mountains when I hear the word “mountains” but “Alice Leaves for the Mountains” serves as a new layer, a fresh trigger for my photographic memory. It isn’t so much memory replacement as it is sensory evolution/memory expansion. Seattle in February is, in part, my new “mountains.”
Day 5 with Talent Night at the Ashram:
I’ve listened to this album exclusively for the last five days and I appreciate the time I’ve had to sit with it. I blasted it on repeat this morning through some speakers and danced around my kitchen. I listened through built-in laptop speakers (nearly futile). I’ve listened repeatedly with a solid pair of headphones and can now assuredly credit Sony for unveiling the low end on “Cheap Extensions” — the bass line on that song is fucking relentless. Most of the melodies on the record have become earworms for me at least once over the last handful of days. There are songs I connect with a lot more than others; the more nostalgic ones are (surprise!) my bag — specifically “Alice Leaves for the Mountains” and the last song, “Secret Plot.” The latter’s busy little acoustic guitar-piano lick would become one of the aforementioned earworms; those sparse melodic moments are the album’s most uplifting, and a surprising note on which to close out a body of songs. It’s easily the most exciting bit of the record for me.
While I’m on the subject of pop music: It’s worth noting that the layered harmonies that serve as the intro to “The Application” could likely fool any Beach Boys enthusiast into believing it’s an almost-forever-lost outtake from The Smile Sessions. The song feels like smeared sunshine, resin-heavy and waterlogged, laced with that strange California ennui Joan Didion writes about loving and knowing well. Additionally, I’m struck suddenly by the notion that Sonny’s “The Application” could be interpreted as a direct reply to Sylvia Plath’s “The Applicant,” 52 years later. The possibility that this was an intended Ariel reference pleases me, but I’ll wait to confirm with the source before settling too deeply into my excitement.
The execution of instrumentation is the most compelling aspect of this album, on some songs becoming clinical, blasé, evoking a specific suburban sadness with which I’m especially familiar. (Has Sophia Coppola heard this record?) In other songs, such as the title track, the keys are opiate-drenched (I can’t actually decipher what instrument is being played at times, and I love not knowing) and the guitar’s role is theatrical rather than dreamy; the groove is acrobatic. It’s within these scattered moments in the songs, when each instrument seems assured in a singular voicing, that I find myself making synesthetic associations in hyper-color (for the title track intro, think Barney-and-the-Backyard-Gang-purple, before Barney went magenta in ’91) whereas the blended haze of sound on tracks like “Happy Carrot Health Food Store” is bleak and has me seeing through a sepia-tone lens.
I’ve always known that there exists a bliss for which to long, but have also always known I couldn’t have it — and wouldn’t want even if I could have it. In the micro sense, it would show up as something like a swimming pool. In the macro sense, it would present itself as Oblivion. Oscillating somewhere between these poles, in my mind, is the California that Sonny Smith has captured in this recording. I’m left feeling sun-soaked but bored, smiling but disappointed, full of fresh, self-aware kale juice but still dying for steak. It isn’t that he’s not selling the swimming pool; I’ve just never wanted a swimming pool. Unless it’s an indoor pool, solely accessible via secret waterslide built into my bedroom closet.