K. Sonin is a prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist based in Albany, New York. In addition to serving as a member of Complicated Shirt, Che Guevara T-Shirt and other bands, he has issued a mind-boggling 34 solo albums over the past two decades, including his most recent disc, the fatalistically titled The Definition of Stupidity is Doing the Same Thing 34 Times and Expecting Different Results. While I can’t claim to have heard all of Sonin’s records, I have listened to a solid couple of dozen of them over the years, and I consider this latest album to be the best of the bunch. Maybe practice makes (more) perfect, after all.
Sonin is a technically proficient guitarist, bassist, programmer and vocalist, capable of busting a move or rocking a riff when he wants to, on pretty much any instrument he lays hands on. But he’s also a skilled sound technician and math rock afficianado, so oftentimes his prodigious chops may be hard for the casual listener to perceive or appreciate, deployed as they are in knotty, sonically-challenging songs. On Same Thing 34 Times, though, he strikes a great balance between his noisy and melodic sides, and arranges most of the album’s eight songs in sparse, acoustic settings that really give these outstanding compositions the breathing room they deserve.
Sonin’s lyrics on this disc are dynamite as well, with the first 15 seconds of “Foralison” featuring one of those instantly classic lines that expresses so many complex feelings with so few words: “When I tell you I’d move the Earth for you, you say: ‘Go ahead, let’s see’.” This opening track features an engaging acoustic guitar foundation with a great bridge, in which electric guitar and barking dogs duel, followed by another haunting and wanting final line: “When I swear I’m going crazy, you say ‘Go ahead, go crazy for me,’ Alison, it’s killing me.”
“Feels Like” merges an over-amped guitar figure with a spacious choral vocal intoning “Drink all day / feels like getting by.” It’s followed by “Thousand Guitars,” an instrumental that ably showcases Sonin’s skill on that particular instrument; some of his sustained lead lines end up sounding and soaring like Robert Fripp soundscapes.
“Formel” initially presents itself as a relatively simple voice-and-guitar number, but it beats the pants off anything you’re ever likely to hear from most people singing with acoustic six-stringed instruments. “In your eyes, sometimes I see them coming from us,” Sonin sings, and the (justified?) paranoia of the number is striking and palpable. “NOR049” moves deeper into the noisy zone, with a gentle acoustic guitar figure that’s pillaged and eventually subsumed by highly-distored, reverb-drenched electric blurts.
The next track, “10 Years,” is the album highlight, a heartbreaking acoustic number about growing older in the working world, and not being exactly sure how you feel about doing so. “It takes ten years to dig your own grave,” Sonin sings, plaintively, in a double-tracked vocal over a sparse finger-picked guitar figure. “It takes ten years to convince yourself that’s safe. This is the safe way, this is the best way, this is the only way, to die alone in Albany,” he continues, before really sticking the stake in the hearts of thousands of cubicle-dwellers with these lines: “Ambition will only leave you wanting. Ambition will never get you any further. Ambition will only leave you waiting . . . another ten years.” This is a devastatingly powerful song, bleak in its words, but yet somehow hopeful, or at least wistful, in its music. Haunting, either way.
“Jordan By Way of 16 Horsepower and Papa M” is Same Thing 34 Times‘ longest and noisiest track, a sprawling construction whose inspirations are laid clear in its title, which references Slint guitarist David Pajo and post-No Depression noisy-country howlers 16 Horsepower. The albums closes with another melodic-acoustic number, “Long Day,” featuring Sonin singing sweet words of sorrow at the higher end of his vocal range atop a pretty finger-picked guitar figure. The song’s sole lyrics: “It’s been a long day, without you.” Can you boil loneliness and longing down into any fewer words? I don’t think you can.
All in all, this eight song set is simply magnificent, and deserves to widely heard. Nicely enough, the entire disc is available for free download or streaming, here. (An assortment of his other albums can also be downloaded on this page. My favorites of the earlier discs are We Take the Dead and the Snow and Make Soup and Jelly Legs/Bed Sores). I’m tremendously glad to have had the chance to get to know K. Sonin’s music while I lived in Albany, and hope he continues to make records as fine as this one. I suspect that he will.