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FRUITVALE • Sonny Smith

Leave it to San Francisco rock 'n' roll eccentric Chuck Prophet to launch worldwide distribution of his new Belle Sound record label with an artist as quirky and street-smooth in his own way as the estimable Chuckster himself.

A child of SF bohemians who was raised in a freeform swirl of folk music, wine, and beat literature, Sonny Smith comes by his oddball proclivities honestly. This is a cat who pegs his own artistic sensibility somewhere between freakazoid cartoonist R. Crumb (and Fruitvale has the whammo comic book cover art to prove it) and cult songwriter Daniel Johnston. Stir in a heaping measure of Jonathan Richman, add a dash of Brian Wilson and a pinch of Ray Davies at his most wide-eyed and vulnerable, and you're cookin' in Sonny's kitchen.

In other words, Smith, who considers himself a playwright and screenwriter foremost, dissects life with an unfiltered, childlike exuberance that often cuts to the quick faster and deeper than any dozen self-conscious poet wannabes ever could.

A 10-track song cycle based on his experiences as a onetime resident of Oakland California's rough and tumble neighborhood of the same name, Fruitvale bobs, weaves, and mesmerizes like ghetto/barrio cabaret. Misfits and miscreants (among them rogue cops, contract killers, a closet teenage drag queen, and "a neighborhood dealer with a grin full of tin foil") of all stripes intersect on city streets that run thick with fear, aggression, and the stubborn will to keep on keeping on in spite of it all.

Smith's earnest warble of a voice and artfully primitive, angular arrangements provide the ideal vehicles for his in-character musings on a place where isolation and claustrophobia share a fire escape. Though a prime cut like "Good Folks Bad Folks" travels in the chassis of a conventional pop song, most of this stuff might lie a bit off the grid for some. Even so, listeners willing to give wide clearance to a bona fide original just might find Fruitvale a 'hood well worth visiting. • Mike Thomas

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