Breakups can do unpredictable things to a guy. For singer-songwriter Sonny Smith, separating from his girlfriend of 10 years led him in a musical direction he’d never gone before. The first time his singing voice appears on Longtime Companion, a second or two into opening track “I Was Born,” it’s striking how different it is from his earlier work. It’s twangy and crystal-clear, the perfect aural realization of the album cover’s hapless sincerity, but also the sort of affect and presentation that might scan as Hee-Haw in the wrong hands. Fortunately for Smith, it fits him like a snug Stetson, and only becomes more endearing the longer it plays on.
Companion isn’t worlds apart from Tomorrow Is Alright and Hit After Hit, but it stands apart from the rest of Smith’s discography. The production is pristine, for starters: A fair bit of studio spit-and-polish went into Companion compared with Smith’s earlier material, which emanated out of the San Francisco psychedelic/garage axis that spawned Citay and the Fresh & Onlys, among others. The sheen might alienate some purists, but there are far more continuities than ruptures here. Companion may be bummer country-pop, but this is the guy who wrote “Heart Of Sadness” and “The Bad Energy From L.A. Is Killing Me,” after all, and the way he stretches the key word in the chorus of Companion’s “Year Of The Cock” is as mordant as anything he’s done. The most direct and telling comparison, however, is the completely overhauled “Pretend You Love Me.” Originally the jangly, lo-fi closer to Hit, it’s now twice as long and much prettier. Companion might have been born of a failed relationship, but it’s hard not to imagine Smith’s new look is anything but a rejuvenation.