For his latest outing under the Sonny & the Sunsets moniker, Sonny Smith pulls something of an of Montreal , backing away from the lo-fi pop of his past releases in favor of a more rhythm-centric album of jagged beats and compressed post-punk funk. That tUnE-yArDs Merrill Garbus is behind the boards should come as no surprise as Moods Baby Moods plays with her dayglo aesthetic in miniature, applying it liberally to Smith’s established aesthetic. Less harsh and strident that tUnE-yArDs’ most recent recordings, Moods Baby Moods is all sanded edges and smooth vocals. And yet there is still more than a touch of Garbus in these songs – she appears on background vocals throughout – and this drastic shift in sound comes as something of a surprise for those accustomed to Smith’s more pure pop-leaning albums.
From the start, Moods Baby Moods presents itself as an entirely different animal from the often ramshackle approach taken on Talent Night at the Ashram. Where that felt like a bit of a step backwards from where he had been previously heading, Moods represents a hard left turn into a more dance-centric approach. The non sequitur title of opening track “Death Cream part 2 ‘Watch Out for the Cream’” essentially sets the tone for what is to come. As disorienting as it may seem coming from this former lo-fi pop practitioner, it’s a more or less logic move given his presence on Polyvinyl, the label that saw of Montreal through its string of identity crises.
As with tUnE-yArDs, the bass plays a prominent role within each track. Functioning as an additional lyrical, rhythmic and percussive element, Shayde Sartin’s playing helps elevate much of the album from mere genre pastiche and into legitimately funky territory. On “Well But Strangely Hung Man” in particular, Satin’s playing is an odd amalgam of Chic and post-punk as it slithers around Smith’s sullen vocals in a sort of circling duet. Elsewhere he approaches Young Marble Giants territory, all sparse and angular melodic figures. “Nightmares” plays like a lost Cure B-side, Sartin’s propulsive picked bass line pushing the song along its decidedly linear path.
Thematically, Smith’s concerns range from the stresses of modern life (“Modern Age”), social inequity and its inherent absurdities (“White Cops on Trial”) and the general ennui associated with the aging process (“The Hospital Grounds at Night”). “Check Out” takes on a double meaning as Smith finds himself lost within his own thoughts at the grocery store, having forgotten the initial reason for his trip. Here he is checking out both literally and figuratively, subsequently embarking on the ultimate check out as his car careens off the road. “See you/See you later,” he sighs as Garbus coos along behind him. It’s one of the album’s bleakest moments, yet remains afloat due to the deceptively cheery arrangement.
Moods Baby Moods ultimately seems to be aiming for a more profound level of social commentary than it eventually manages, losing focus by attempting to tackle too much at once. “White Cops on Trial” is largely tone deaf to the larger issue of racial and social inequality and the rampant corruption present in a number of city police departments. Instead of focusing on the issue at hand, it plays as a tragicomedy with Smith’s jury intoning: “we have found him not guilty because we are insane/blah blah blah blah blah blah we are crazy.” And while he shouldn’t be expected to necessarily get to the heart of the issue driving these types of behaviors within a three-minute pop song, the mere fact it’s brought up only to be largely dismissed without exploring the determining factors feels like a disservice.
Similarly, Smith’s voice feels on the verge of being smothered by the often aggressive arrangements. “Reject of the Lowest Planet” in particular, with its skittering rhythm guitar and call-and-response riffing proves a bit much for Smith’s voice. Despite his best efforts his voice remains best suited to the barely-heard acoustic guitar strumming away somewhere deep within the track. Fortunately, these lyrical and vocal missteps do little to fully detract from the new wave/post-punk funk backing that permeates the album.
Unfortunately, as has long been the case with any Sonny & the Sunsets album, Moods Baby Moods tends to wander as it reaches its back half. Given Smith’s prolific nature as a writer, he seems more inclined to release nearly everything laid to tape, regardless of its merit. In this, his interest appears to lie more in the creative process than the final product, putting more effort into the creation of songs than the refinement of ideas lyrical and musical (see “Dead Meat on the Beach” in particular). Regardless, Moods Baby Moods offers yet another interesting chapter in the unfolding saga that is the prolific recording career of Sonny Smith, with or without the Sunsets.
Artist: Sonny & the Sunsets
Album: Moods Baby Moods
Label: Polyvinyl Records
Release Date: May 27, 2016