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Sonny Smith – Fruitvale

Sonny Smith seems like an odd character. The press release that accompanies his new album Fruitvale, came stapled around a crudely drawn comic book. The story basically covers Sonny’s life; from going to see Frankie Goes to Hollywood as a kid, to living in a shitty apartment in Denver’s Capitol Hill, to a jungle commune in Panama.

The album cover continues with the comic book theme, displaying drawn portraits of the characters in Sonny’s songs, and what might be an unlicensed picture of the superhero Daredevil.


It all makes sense when listening to his songs. Sonny is a born storyteller and Fruitvale creates an entire world within an urban neighborhood. Each track introduces a new character living within its confines. He may seem odd, but Sonny’s songwriting creates personaes that are more honest and real than many of the books out today.

Fruitvale, a poor, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Oakland, CA, sounds like less than desirable place to call home. Sonny’s songs cover its denizens that include corrupt cops, prostitutes, pimps, and gang bangers. However, the characters are treated with such love and respect, that the listener can’t help being drawn into their stories. Sonny’s conflicted attitudes to his old neighborhood are probably best described in the song “Good Folks Bad Folks.” He sings about good people living in fear of the bad elements of the area. The chorus asks why he stays there, to which Sonny responds “It’s a hell of a place.”

The entire album manages to mix humor with pain and tragedy. “Bad Cop” talks about a police officer who terrorizes the neighborhood by threatening the citizens and shooting people in the back. “Mario” is about a transvestite and the man who is in love with him, and there’s “Curtis on the Corner” who sports his huge afro about the neighborhood. You feel the menace of gangs, but amusement at the image of a “pimp chewing on a rib.” Sonny even manages to write a poignant love song for a seven-foot tall prostitute, who’s wig is crooked and face is caked with makeup.

Most album reviews focus on the music. However, with Fruitvale, it is easy to focus on the stories the songs tell while ignoring the instrumentals that convey them. Most of the songs are fairly simple, allowing the listener to focus on the complexity of the lyrics. There is often a piano playing rusty notes that convey the gritty sound of Fruitvale, as well as acoustic guitar accompanied by soft percussion. “Private Dick” has backup singers singing about a dead body with the most beautiful of voices. It all has a folk quality that lends itself to Sonny’s storytelling brand of music.

It is easy to see why Sonny Smith has garnered such notable fans as Neko Case and Leroy Bach. It is rare to find such deft storytelling in music. Fruitvale could easily be a novel or book of short stories. I suppose it could even be a comic book. However, most people will read a favorite book once a year, whereas with an album, fans are more likely to visit the world he has created with more regularity.


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