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Sonny Smith, Fruitvale, (Belle Sound)

Bay Area pop eclectic Sonny Smith has made a lot of friends. Alt-country stars like Neko Case and Jolie Holland have handpicked him to open tours for them, and Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet essentially started his new Belle Sound label specifically to put out Smith’s latest, the concept LP Fruitvale. Smith’s been working quietly underground for years while accumulating this host of high-profile admirers. In 2000, he self-released his first album, a low-budget job called Who’s the Monster … You or Me? Its follow-up, This Is My Story, This Is My Song, found a home on the tiny San Francisco label Jackpine Social Club, which technically made it his debut. However, it had a belated 2003 release, and Smith had already moved on from those songs by the time the record started attracting positive reviews. By then, Smith was living in a funky Latino neighborhood in Oakland, one whose odd characters would provide the inspiration for Fruitvale, which plays like a postmodern barrio version of Our Town set to music. Featuring an ambitious song cycle, Smith’s album refracts the fragile pop of Daniel Johnston, the cracked bohemian poetry of Tom Waits, and the underdog narratives of Randy Newman — all through his own skewed kaleidoscope. Largely recorded in Chicago with arranger and coproducer Leroy Bach, who is best known from his time in Wilco, Smith’s funny, fragile voice infuses his strange little kitchen-sink dramas with a passion and a pathos that are hard to resist. — Bob Mehr