I like Bay Area songsmith Sonny Smith and I like his band the Sunsets, but I wasn't sure what to expect from 100 Records, Vol. 3, not just because I haven't heard the previous volumes, let alone the singles that constitute each release, but because it's a concept album, and I've always been a little skeptical of the form. Sure, there are some good—even very good—ones out there, but there's also a lot of self-indulgent wankery. I should've had more faith in Smith. His latest full-length isn't just good: it's great.
The 15-track collection represents Smith's final volume in the series, although I could imagine him keeping the project going indefinitely, unlike Sufjan Stevens, whose proposed 50-states series stalled out at 2005's Illinois. Granted, that was always going to be a near-impossible task to pull off. In Smith's case, the concept is easy to explain, but few artists could have executed it as successfully.
Basically, he invented every band he covers, like beat group Zig Speck & the Specktones ("Fruitcakes"), which means he's performing his own material, except the results suggest otherwise. Of course, Smith still sounds like himself, but the framework has allowed him to experiment with different genres and eras, and I'll be damned if he doesn't succeed spectacularly. The songs fit together marvelously, too, making for a long player with a cohesive, rather than a scattershot feel.
On Danny Dusk & the Twilights' "Life Ain't Clear," for instance, he performs a twang-filled Jan and Dean-style song about hot-rodding, which calls on his organ expertise, while Bobby Hawkins' high and lonesome "Minimum Wage" pivots on a hummed vocal track, which saved him from having to write any lyrics, and recalls the hum and whistle-infused country-pop ditties that used to pop up in post-modern Westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Unlike many concept albums, there's nothing particularly pretentious about the idea or the execution. On "Space Travel," for instance, he expresses the desire for a little "space fuck." If Smith doesn't stray too far outside his comfort zone—there are no ersatz classical pieces here—he still ranges widely within the realm of popular music. I particularly enjoyed the story songs, which is saying something, as my tolerance for the form is minimal at best, but Smith is as much a storyteller as a songwriter. That said, I couldn't say whether the tales are true or not. I mean, you would expect them to be fictional, except "From Dud to Stud" rings so true I can only assume that Smith also went through a long period of celibacy.
I went 13 years without ever having sex, 28 to 41. I forgot what sex was. That's not true. I forgot how to have it or how to get it or what to do with it. But in fact, I thought about it every day, at least once, typically in the morning when I saw a girl that worked in my neighborhood coffee shop. One day, I met a woman. Her name was Sheila. She was very interested in me. I hung out at her place and listened to some music. I told her about the no-sex. She was very interested in curing me.
Other numbers riff on Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed, and even the Skatalites. While Smith created the music, artists from Chris Johanson to Esther Pearl Watson designed the cover art for each single. Fittingly, several gallery shows have been dedicated to the project, since the visual component adds to the verisimilitude.
If any of the acts or genres I've mentioned capture your fancy, 100 Records, Vol. 3 is well worth your time, and I hope it brings new fans Smith's way—even those who don't know the backstory, fall in love with the album, and proceed to scour eBay and Discogs for sides by "Merriweather Bradley" and "Hazel Shep."
Mostly, it's more than just a stylistic exercise, which would be impressive enough in itself, but a song cycle made with real feeling. Whether those emotions spring directly from Smith or whether he's projecting them onto made-up artists singing about made-up subjects is entirely beside the point. It's like method acting; he becomes the musicians when he sings their songs, and that makes them real.
100 Records, Vol. 3 is out now on Polyvinyl in a limited-edition cassette, white vinyl, or digital edition. Vols. 1 and 2 have also been reissued on cassette.