Restless Bay Area songwriter Sonny Smith formed his ramshackle collective Sonny & the Sunsets around his endless stream of songs, producing so much inventive, homespun music he went so far as to write and record 200 original songs for a conceptual art show in 2010. While a far cry from some of those high concept one-off tunes, the more refined fare of Sonny & the Sunsets' full-length albums can sound just as ambitious, creative, and strange, with Smith's mind always turning out a blurry whir of various characters, scenes, and sonic pictures. With fifth album Talent Night at the Ashram, Smith again collects some friends to fill out his home-recorded musings, this time spinning ten songs with more cinematic aspirations, each exploring different scenarios that feel like plots to tiny screenplays and bending styles on almost every song. The album begins with a Beach Boys-esque swell of a cappella harmonies that gives way to toy synth leads and breezy chord progressions on "The Application." Smith's production is deceptively laid-back and airy from the very start of the album. Lazy melodies and pick-up band playing give the album a loose feel that willfully obscures its musical density. Each song employs an almost completely different approach or instrumentation, the phased-out FM radio pop of "Alice Leaves for the Mountains" blending seamlessly into the Kinks-y exotica of "Happy Carrot Health Food Store." Sounds are hidden in the corners of Talent Night at the Ashram, with Mellotron tones, 12-string folk-rock guitar leads, and reverb-coated percussion all buried beneath Smith's hook-heavy ruminations. The dabbling with synthesizers that began on 2013's Antenna to the Afterworld continues here, notably on '80s-synth pop-tinged numbers like "Cheap Extensions." Even though listening closely enough on some songs reveals Smith shouting out the changes to his band, the collision of off-the-cuff recording techniques and intricate songwriting produces another colorful chapter of Sonny & the Sunsets' tireless and always beautiful work.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas