If you hated Dead Man because it moved too slowly, get itchy feet
between jokes on American sitcoms, don’t understand Music for Airports, constantly check your Steve Reich CD to make sure it’s not skipping, think that instrumental music is only good for soundtracks and making out, or have trouble paying attention to an entire two-minute punk song then you should run away from Sonna. If you see one of their discs in a record store, don’t even look at another thing. Cover your eyes and flee screaming to the street.
If, on the other hand, you can appreciate music that takes more than four bars to make its point, take Smile and the World Smiles With You into your home as a respected guest. Serve it tea and buttered scones. Let it spin merrily in your stereo like a mechanical ballerina, because it’s every bit as graceful and reserved as a dancer. It speaks gently and folds its hands over the napkin in its lap, then holds out its pinky while it sips its tea and compliments you on your curtains.
There is a strange symmetry to the six songs on Smile, resulting from the shared drum beat that appears both on the first and third tracks (“Frone Taj” and “The Right Age”). These are by far the catchiest tunes on the record. Though instrumental, the guitar melodies invade your head like the best vocal hook in a pop song. The variety of sounds sprinkled over this CD make it obvious that the drummer is not lacking in imagination, but is intentionally making a compositional point, taking the record beyond the status of just another collection of songs and establishing it as a larger work all of its own.
The upbeat indie-pop jangle of both songs emerges like iceberg tips from the murky ambient ocean blanketing the rest of the CD, a marked departure. Two other tracks, “One Most Memorable” and “Smile,” have no drum beat at all. Instead they feel like they’re constantly about to erupt into one. On the first several listens I found this vaguely annoying, wishing the song would go somewhere, but I slowly became convinced that the songs knew right where they were supposed to be. This tension in the absence of motion was the point.
But where would a CD be with two extremes and no middle ground? The Switzerland of this disc is “Open Ended,” a track that features a subterranean drum sample in lieu of a live kit, glazed over with ambient guitar swells and sparse melodies. The song stretches the limits of what your ear expects, only introducing a change right as you’re beginning to think the track’s not going anywhere.
If, by the fifth track, Sonna has established a pattern of upbeat songs, ambient soundscapes, and one in-between, then the sixth track breaks the mold by combining the three. “And the World Smiles With You” begins by whispering a six-note melody that dances in and out of synch with the rest of the instruments. Layer by layer, ambient chords are draped over the song. The beat I was longing for in “One Most Memorable” and “Smile” bursts through the gauzy curtains of this soundscape three minutes into the song, moving your butt with its all-too-appropriate unexpected entrance. In this song you find the entire frigid ocean that is Smile, icebergs and all, pushed off the edge of the world in a brilliant cascade. Over the next seven minutes the jangle of the guitar gives way to the first real crescendo of noise on the whole disc, replete with actual distortion. It quiets down to a trickle-- is the ocean almost emptied out?-- and whistles a few more notes around a dusty upright piano before breathing its last sigh at a brief ten minutes and forty-six seconds.
This record came out of Austin, but sounds inspired by Chicago label Thrill Jockey’s team of instrumental prodigies. If you are patient and attentive, Smile and the World Smiles With You has a Texas take on this genre and would like to share it with you. If you can’t pay attention because you’re too busy looking for vocals, or some verse-chorus-bridge song structure, then oh well. It’s your loss.