Sonny Smith Fruitvale

[Belle Sound; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: singer-songwriter, indie rock, alt folk troubadour, neo-psychedelia
Others: Eels, Flaming Lips, Beck, G. Love & Special Sauce

Fruitvale, the third long-player from Oakland-based singer-songwriter Sonny Smith, affords the listener such a vicarious and near-voyeuristic glimpse into the intimate, sordid details of inner-city life as to almost be construed as a guilty pleasure. Featuring a star-studded cast of indie musicians that serves to flesh out these tales of pimps, pushers, hookers, and love-gone-bad, the album is a seamy, vivid, and often laugh-out-loud funny portrayal of life on the wrong side of the tracks.

The simplistic, lo-fi quality of these ten unpolished pop gems adds to the atmosphere of decadence and quaint candor that colors the proceedings. Smith’s arrangements are appropriately stripped-down, generally consisting of little more than drums, keyboards, and bass, with the occasional guitar bit, but they are adorned with production values that draw heavily from the tradition of psychedelia, adding to the pot-fueled vibe toward which these tracks are predisposed. The tremoloed guitar of “Private Dick” and the distorted fuzz organ of “Mario,” for example, immerse themselves in a garage-y, '60s psych-rock ambience. Smith’s keen pop sensibility, with its mellow grooves and sunny melodies, also manifests itself in a distinctly East Coast fashion, with its easygoing flow coupled with his somewhat lethargic vocal delivery.

From the album’s cover art to its accompanying comic book (which provides amusing historical context) to the narrative thrust of its individual tracks, Fruitvale is steeped in a sense of timelessness. Smith’s world-weary vocals themselves are suggestive of an honesty and directness that likens them to those of similarly vulnerable and hypersensitive artists such as Daniel Johnston and Jonathan Richman (and perhaps even Jandek), who have also made careers out of penning tracks stripped of any temporal associations. But while the above artists frequently create fragile, sober works based around childlike themes, longing, loss, and psychological instability, Smith’s equally eccentric songwriting is considerably more humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and brimming with self-awareness.

Enjoying an ability to evoke the idiosyncratic everyday situations of city life, Sonny Smith has fashioned Fruitvale as a concept album of sorts, based around the love-hate relationships that still exist in the tattered communities of old-school urban centers. “Day in the Life of a Heel,” the lead-off track, sets the stage for the remainder of the album, which appears to be a heady balance of anecdotal material and fabrications that nonetheless smack of verisimilitude. “Bad Cop,” for example, is both far-fetched and hilarious but, like the bulk of the record, draws the listener in like a perverse fiction reminiscent of Bukowski or Chandler. Smith allegedly began his storytelling career writing screenplays, before finally turning to songwriting as a means of self-expression. If tracks like “Curtis on the Corner” are any indication, this was a wise career move, as Smith is preternaturally able to turn a simple two-minute track into something as richly evocative as many novels — and ultimately as memorable and rewarding.

Most Read