Like many similarly prolific artists, Sonny Smith seems to release nearly everything he records, warts and all. Having released five albums proper in nearly as many years, not to mention innumerable other projects in which he’s played a hand, one would not fault Smith for simply resting on his laurels and phoning it in. But Talent Night at the Ashram, while many things, is anything but that.
Featuring a loose collection of shabby, ramshackle pop songs at times slightly improvisational and always in the moment, much of Talent Night at the Ashram feel like a series of first takes or even rehearsal demos. But it’s this oftentimes peculiar, rough-hewn quality that helps elevate the album from being a self-indulgent mess to a charmingly irreverent stab at lo-fi psychedelia.
Heavily reverbed, these scruffy tracks harken back to the freewheeling days of the mid-‘60s when myriad new sounds and recording technologies were being explored well beyond their originally intended purposes. From multi-tracked, Beach Boys-esque harmonies to backwards guitar, nearly every trick is explored to varying degrees of success throughout the album. There’s a lived-in, aged quality to these songs and their production within which you can almost trace the dust accumulation.
Woozy vocals and sluggish tempos help obscure any sort of melodic immediacy Talent Night at the Ashram may present, requiring several listens for the full, almost hallucinogenic quality of the music to take hold. This lack of immediacy, however, tends to work in their favor, requiring a deeper level of investment on the part of the listener. Casual listens will lose the melodies and hooks that eventually spring forth. All the appropriate components are there, they simply require a little extra parsing.
The epic “Happy Carrot Health Food Store” (a song just as granola as its title would suggest) features a jarring transition from 4/4 on the verses to 6/8 on the choruses that doesn’t quite work. Coming as it does squarely in the middle of the album and running over seven minutes, it tends to drag down the rest of the material here. While a noble experiment in suite-like song structure, they’re simply a bit too loose and haphazard in their performance to be able to convincingly pull off these changes. The tempo varies wildly between the two sections resulting in a push-pull feel that sounds as though the song could fall apart at any moment.
By trying to cram so many ideas, including an extended circular exploratory freakout jam behind an extended spoken word passage, their overall ambition shines through. But they lack the necessary acumen to successfully execute their more progressive, psychedelic tendencies. It’s a bit too wandering and aimless to fully land. Throughout and on previous albums, Sonny & the Sunsets are at their best when they favor brevity in their sonic explorations.
As with the early work of label mates Of Montreal, there are moments of delightfully lo-fi psychedlia and sonic weirdness that never quite work, but are able to largely get by on charm alone. The ideas are plentiful throughout; however, they simply don’t always have the structural solidity and quality of material to be able to properly support their intentions.
But it’s not all swinging for the fences and ultimately coming up short. Album highlight “Icelene’s Loss” features several lovely soft psych instrumental passages coupled with one of the more immediate melodies on Talent Night at the Ashram. Placing this alongside some of his group’s less than successful experiments further reflects Smith’s assuredness as an artist, willing to present noble failures alongside magnificent successes with equal confidence.
If nothing else, Sonny Smith is wildly ambitious, taking chances with his group’s arrangements, often in performances that feel both in the moment and liable to fall apart at any time. This sense of instability permeates the record, leaving the listener with an appropriate sense of anxiety that perfectly compliments the plethora of minor key melodies lazily floating through the jangle of guitars and seas of reverb. Talent Night at the Ashram is ultimately yet another fascinating release by an artist whose ideas seem as boundless his ambition. It’s simply a matter of everyone else around him being able to keep up.