When artists take their sound in a radically opposite direction, I can get behind it more often than not. For instance, when Mount Eerie dropped a few acoustic lullabies on Lost Wisdom and then turned around to release the towering and blackened Wind’s Poem a year later, it was hard to believe that the same artist made both albums. Yet they’re both brilliant records in their own right; neither sounds contrived, because despite the drastic genre shift, Phil Elverum still maintains a very distinct voice of his own on both albums. Similarly to the above example, many artists have their “[insert genre]” record that considerably strays from their prior work. These albums can make an artist’s discography unique and eclectic, something interesting to dive into. Exploring genres should be encouraged, with the hope being that artists don’t totally lose sight of their previous work in the process.
But why, oh why, did Sonny And The Sunsets have to make their “country record?” Longtime Companion, the third LP by the San Franciscan group that formerly made garage-pop, is an example of a new direction that just doesn’t work. The story behind the album is that frontman Sonny Smith and his longtime girlfriend called it quits, thus he banded together some fellow countryheads in addition to his Sunsets to produce a breakup record. The decision to make a country record isn’t that farfetched for Sonny, who was raised on country greats. But just because Paris Hilton grew up listening to pop music doesn’t automatically justify her decision to make a pop album, either.
Longtime Companion kicks off appropriately with a song entitled “I Was Born,” in which we’re first treated to Smith’s pitchy Southern drawl, a voice that sounds all too nasally and forced. The twang in his voice is exacerbated by a refrain that has him repeating “gettin’ kinda queeeeeer.” But despite the track’s weak vocal, he’s at least backed up by a catchy flute line and some great interplay between a thumping acoustic guitar and standup bass. Unfortunately, the arrangements take a dive in quality from “I Was Born,” relying heavily on country tropes like swooning pedal steel guitar on “See Of Darkness” and flat, shuffling drum lines on tracks like “Year Of The Cock.” Given the subject matter, Longtime Companion is obviously meant to be a more mature record than their sunnier efforts, but due to that sense of maturity, most of the LP moseys along without building or doing anything that draws attention to it.
Smith’s transition from penning simple garage-pop tunes to spinning country yarns on this new record demands a much higher caliber of storytelling and lyrical wit. Yet neither of these really presents itself on Longtime Companion. For instance, it’s easy to understand that he went through a breakup and that he’s down about it, but otherwise the lyrics don’t lend much to the imagination. To refer back to “Year Of The Cock,” the album’s longest track and most numbingly repetitive, Smith finds himself telling a love story from the perspective of a thousand different animals – a technique that inadvertently jumbles a slew of totally unrelated images together. On “Dried Blood,” the substandard lyricism bleeds through in such tacky couplets as “Felt so good to let go of my past/ Though it happened really kinda fast,” and, “Now I’m drunk on too much wine/ Oh well y’know it’s too-much-wine-drinkin’ time!”
With some rather boring compositions and hokey songwriting, this record doesn’t have a lot going for it. Longtime Companion is the sound of a garage-pop band donning cowboy hats and doing the hoedown; there’s very little authenticity here. However, when flickers of earlier Sonny And The Sunsets bubble underneath the otherwise contrived music on the record, the album becomes marginally better. The bumbling guitar on “Children Of The Beehive” and the minimal indie rock rhythm on “Pretend You Love Me” bring in some refreshing pop character. “I See The Void” in particular might be the strongest track on the record, because it so adeptly combines a country flavor with a hook that immediately recalls the surf-rock chant from “I Wanna Do It,” off of last year’s Hit After Hit. It brings back the familiar voice of Sonny And The Sunsets for a brief moment, and then the moment ends. Had the group stepped more gradually into their country shoes, Longtime Companion would have been a considerably stronger release.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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