Sonny Smith's sprawling ‘100 Records' installation now featured at East Austin indie gallery Okay Mountain began when the San Francisco-based musician/writer was penning a novel. Smith's narrative featured a few musicians and so for creative grins, Smith thought it would be fun to write a few songs to fill out the backstory of his fictional musicians.
Envisioning ersatz musicians and their music proved irresistible and subsequently Smith asked some of his artist friends to sketch out album covers for his ever-growing roster of imaginary entertainers. Eventually Smith wrote not only all 100 songs, but he also composed a corresponding B-side single and drafted bios for each band or musician.
And while some 90 artists (among them the noted pop art progenitor Ed Ruscha) were busy painting or drawing record covers and fashioning ersatz 45 rpm records (most in a kind of alt comic style), Smith set out to record all 200 songs of his 100 imaginary records.
Those fake records and their covers, along with band bios, blanket the gallery walls at Okay Mountain. But perhaps the real centerpiece is ‘Cosmoramic,' a working vintage-looking jukebox crafted from scrap material and hand-drawn lettering. Find the number of the song you want to hear, punch it in and you'll hear Smith's quirky tunes.
If nothing else, ‘100 Records' is a daunting collaborative project involving an enormous roster of artists, exhausting when all the art-making and song-making efforts are considered.
But there's a ready-made nostalgia to ‘100 Records,' too, and the romantic appeal of that nostalgia charms immediately. And morevoer, you even have a soundtrack to send you on a trip through an imagined memory lane. After all, what's not to find fetching in the whimsical tales of these fictional musicians? What's not to love about ersatz history that's otherwise known as a good story?
Take the singer Dreama Newborn whose 1962 hit ‘Brilliance Blues' is, we are told, ‘often considered the first recording to bridge the gap between the popular bubblegum girl group sound and the village folk revival.'
Then there's Hank Champion, known as ‘The Chronicler,' whose spoken-word career spun out such hits as ‘From Dud to Stud, From Zero to Hero,' ‘Broke Artist at Turn of Century' and ‘I Walk the Streets, Richest Man Who Ever Lived.' Champion's story tells us that the singer is ‘born of Terlinguan mining stock to a tyrannical father and dead mother (and) began writing at an early age to escape the otherwise inevitable date with the chili trade.'
A nice bit of nonsensical storytelling, but then Smith has nailed it when it comes to meeting our desire for wanting our pop culture idols to have larger-than-life life stories.
Smith also has tapped into our fundamental desire for objects, our need to physically posses or collect those things — like songs — that we like. These days, the ephemerality of digital recordings and downloaded MP3 files just don't satisfy our tactile urges.
In the end, ‘100 Records' hits the sweet spot on many levels: We can't resist a good story any more than we can resist the tangible souvenirs of that story.
`Sonny Smith: 100 Records'
When: through July 3
Where: Okay Mountain, 1312 E. Cesar Chavez St.