It’s tempting to take Sonny Smith at his word on Talent Night at the Ashram.
The chameleonic Smith (now that he mentions it) is a bit of a shaman as a songwriter: mysterious, challenging and exotic, yet for the ready-to-be-converted, a revelation unlike any other.
In terms of sound alone, Smith’s last two albums, the country-rock breakup chronicle Longtime Companion and the spaced-out synth-funk of Antenna to the Afterworld do little to prepare the listener for the off-kilter folk-rock of Talent Night at the Ashram. But in Smith’s inventive songwriting hand, it all makes sense. Or at least makes for another wild journey.
Starting with “The Application,” the album traces Smith’s imaginary journey from normal outsider to abnormal insider. From its first notes, Talent Night at the Ashram eschews the realm of color-by-numbers rock ‘n’ roll and according-to-reality songwriting. “I filled out the application to be a human being,” Smith sings, and the surreal train is away from the station.
“Cheap Extensions” cranks up the psychedelic influences, its twisting melody anchored by a rumbling bassline, with guitars and synthesizers dancing in and out as the song meanders forward.
The title track is full of characters, a bizarre mélange of soul-searchers paraded around by a carnival organ. It’s at the heart of the cinematic aspirations Smith held for the project, a series of short films that collage into a feature film. But while the scripts became songs and the film became an album, a portion of that cinematic foundation remains, breathing life into the songs.
“Happy Carrot Health Food Store” is the album’s seven-minute centerpiece, an absurdist take on the grocery store. More than a little indebted to magical realism, the song takes its time with hallucinogenic detours as well as overly detailed descriptions of the staff. But it’s Smith’s melody on the chorus “It’s a natural health food store” that makes the strongest lasting impression, the catchy cherry on top of so much absurdity.
Weirdness for weirdness’ sake isn’t exactly rare in rock music. But Sonny Smith’s songwriting makes its weirdness fit into a grander design, and Talent Night at the Ashram stretches that ability to new heights.
If Antenna to the Afterworld found its roots in the space glam of David Bowie, Talent Night at the Ashram finds Smith chasing down the more bizarre side of the Kinks. It’s an album that understands the value of both journey and destination and when the going gets weird, amazingly everything is right where it needs to be.