Smith’s “100 Records” project, the origin of 100 Songs, is a collaborative, multimedia piece of art involving around ninety artists, guest musicians from cream of the LA music scene (Tim Cohen of Fresh & Onlys and Heidi Alexander of The Sandwitches for two), and Smith himself. Smith put together a list of fictitious bands, and asked each artist do one or two pieces of cover art for these bands’ (equally fictitious) releases. Meanwhile, Smith put together two hundred songs, an A-side and a B-side for each record. That’s right, he recorded two hundred songs as one hundred different bands.
The Spanish-speaking frontman of the punk band Cabezas Cortades (“Severed Heads”) and the Beat poet reciting his text over a twangy country background in “Broke Artist at the Turn of the Century?” Yeah, same guy.
“100 Records” actually began as a novel. Smith is also a writer, and had been working on a book with musician characters based on many of his friends. At some point he decided it would be useful to sketch out the album covers of these fictional musicians. During his residency at The Headlands Center for the Arts, he farmed out these sketches to visual artists, and eventually decided to expand to the full one hundred records, two hundred songs. After the project finished, he decided to release one song by each artist, in ten volumes of ten songs each, as 100 Songs.
While the size of Smith’s project is impressive enough, what makes it so much fun is the depth of his characterization. Rather than simply typifying one hundred different sub-genres, he made every band distinct and unique. There’s no “James Browne” character or “David Bowie” character. Instead, there’s Bobbie Hawkins, an activist songwriter from 1970’s Detroit who, as a result of a run in with a supervisor at a Chrysler plant, was left blind in one eye. Or The Loud Fast Fools, an outrageously loud punk band who released one self-titled EP and mysteriously quit when they all turned twenty-one. As a result, “100 Records” effectively chronicles the times in which these bands supposedly lived, through the eyes of those that didn’t quite make it – and through the eyes of Sonny Smith, of course.
Each song on I Miss the Jams is convincingly handcrafted to sound like that band you should have heard of but never did. They tend towards a lo-fi, DIY aesthetic, which fits with their less-than-famous status. Highlights include “Garbage Storm” by Wayward Youth, a slow burning, bluesy ballad with touches of The Velvet Underground; “Time to Split,” by the aforementioned Loud Fast Fools; and “I Wanna Do It,” an energetic, impassioned plea for love by Earth Girl Helen Brown, a mix of Patti Smith and Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles.
Happily, Turn Up Records has put up the “bios” of some of these bands on their website. Reading them makes listening to I Miss the Jams twice as good, and makes you appreciate even further how much work Smith has put into this project. I can’t wait to hear the other eight volumes; if they’re anything like the first two, my music-nerd brain might just explode.
Sonny Smith’s 100 Songs, Volume 2: I Miss the Jams CD comes out in wide release TODAY on Turn Up Records. You can check out Sonny Smith’s entire discography here, and some of his poetry here. His band, Sonny & The Sunsets, is playing tons of shows on the west coast and elsewhere; check out their tour dates here. No word yet on that novel.