Sonny and the Sunsets play retro rock and roll. That’s a broad statement applicable to most bands around today. While this is the most striking feature about the band, you might next notice that they actually are doing something (slightly) different. It’s still derivative, but differently so. Rather than participating in the latest wave of garage retreads, Sonny and the Sunsets do a laidback take on ‘50s and ‘60s pop songs, including doo-wop, girl group, and b-movie sci-fi influences. All of the songs have a mellow feel, like the band might fall out of time or tune at any moment. The riffs hang way back, almost slowing down. Sonny’s delivery is calm, ironic. The band sounds like they’re hanging out in the backyard after a barbecue doing an impromptu sendup of an oldies station late at night.
What Sonny and the Sunsets do is different because it brings back a different strand of old time rock and roll than usual: they don’t mine the overlooked nuggets, but rather the more popular forms. Still, there’s another set of derivatives at play here to complicate matters. Their sound manages to pull off an almost oxymoronic thing—they sound simultaneously completely indebted to the Velvet Underground and totally ignorant of them. They fold both ends of the timeline onto each other. In the end, this sound isn’t unique. The same cleverness, the same mellow punk-inspired almost droning approach was taken to the rehashing of the roots of rock and roll and its common topics by the Modern Lovers.
So, at the end of the day, Sonny and the Sunsets are doing a different rehash, twice removed, of Jonathan Richman’s take on rock and roll. Their main difference from the master, perhaps, is to more explicitly do versions of ‘50s tropes. Where the Modern Lovers were funny, Sonny and the Sunsets are clever (like a precocious kid).
Each song on Tomorrow Is Alright is a riff on an old song’s idea. “Chapters” takes on “The Book of Love”, but instead of guiding us through a reading of the book, Sonny brings us through the composition of an unspecified book. Sonny takes the form of the old song and empties it out. “Death Cream”, a standout song with its chorus chant of “death death death cream” pulling against the forward motion of the riff, is basically a morbid rehash of “Love Potion No. 9”. Less interesting is a song like “Strange Love”, a “Teen Angel” inspired ballad. The only thing strange about it is the insistence on being strange. Otherwise, it’s just a doo-wop song done now, with retro production, in the indie manner.
The best thing about Sonny and the Sunsets is the clever and knowledgeable rethinking of old song topics. The album peaks at the end with the heavily VU-influenced “Lovin’ on an Older Gal”. This track does all the things that are most successful on the album at once. There’s a conversation between Sonny and his Sunsets, as he explains to them why he likes older women. The theme of the song twists the classic song topic of loving someone who is too young. Then the bulk of the song is an ode to one particular girl, Holly, who probably populates a series of rocking odes. The song is most interesting because the band really lets loose, with a cool chord-based guitar solo (very Lou Reed, but also in some way reminiscent of George Harrison).
The interplay between Sonny and the band is funny. On “Planet of Women”, Sonny tells a weird sci-fi story of his trip to a world of reverse gender roles, ruled by Queen “I like it like that” who has “her own dick all dressed up in black”. Instead of a ‘50s sex fantasy though, Sonny’s stuffy-nosed narrator complains, “It’s hard livin’ on the planet of women”. Sonny falls in love with the (male) leader of the underground. This song twists genre expectations. Though it’s reminiscent of the horny references that the New York Dolls made to trashy ‘50s sounds, it loses the sexual urgency. Sonny’s character is frustrated and meek, yet clever; he’s a standard bearer of the current indie approach to sex (thanks Wes Anderson), which seems to have little to do with the perennial rockin’ teenager who just wants to get laid.
The record has charm, but the interest is limited. Each song’s melody and riff sound so familiar that you are never able to forget the derivativeness of the band. Perhaps that’s the whole point. Sonny and the Sunsets love oldies and want to give us their take. That’s not quite enough. The major difference between then and now that Too Young to Burn makes you aware of is that back then making pop songs was a professional endeavor, whereas today, with a more open playing field, there are less pretensions to perfection. Like everything else, there are good things and bad things about this. Rock is noisier—a plus. Almost anything is possible, musically and thematically. Good. But then again, every incompetent or narcissistic person is out there flooding the airwaves with their crap. It becomes difficult to tell what’s good anymore.
Sonny’s geeky, almost meek voice works. The laidback, loose feel is nice. But doing this all over again, looser, messier, and so on, isn’t really necessary. The songs’ familiarity make them easy listening and I’m sure these guys have a lot of fun doing it. At the end of the day, this debut isn’t that important and it’s not clear that there’s much room to grow. Despite memorable melodies, the album as a whole winds up being forgettable. Sonny and the Sunsets are fun and funny. The music’s nice. Time to move on. Hopefully tomorrow is alright.
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// Notes from the Road
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