On Sonna’s sophomore effort, Smile and the World Smiles With You, the band winningly refines its ambient-twang formula. Steve Albini returns to the boards to create an entrancing sound that deposits you in a comfy couch in the same room as the band. Smile and the World Smiles With You contains only six songs, but it feels like a full album; most cuts last at least seven minutes, and the songs effortlessly segue from one to the next.
Smile is slippery. The focus never remains in one place for very long. A suspended chord washes in and out like driftwood on a bay tide. A cymbal shimmers through the mix. Two guitar notes bounce off of each other like clinking wine glasses. The bass gurgles a thin arpeggio from the top of the neck. A shy guitar loop peeks up from the bottom of the tank as the rest of the band swims away.
Since ambient instrumental rock is enjoying a resurgence, comparisons will inevitably be made to the soundscapes of Brian Eno and Sigur Ros. Sonna does capture the more cinematic qualities of Rós and Eno. The slow tempos and reverb-drenched tiptoeing of these tunes would have fit as the first half of any song from (), and the sparse melodies and haunting timbres–especially the melodica on “Smile”–show a reverence for Eno. But Sonna’s slight twang and guitar-driven sound bring to mind surprising images: a Crazy Horse band practice, or even-dare I say this-Phish’s experimental gem, The Siket Disc. Even Meddle-era Pink Floyd comes to mind on the repetitive one-note bends of “Open Ended.”
Smile makes a deep emotional connection without resorting to histrionics. Whereas Sigur Rós’s surging sound evokes the turbulence and tension of transcendence, Sonna’s circular sound nudges the listener toward simple reflection, contentment, wonder, and respite. The guitars have a lot to do with this. Occupying a space somewhere between strumming and improvising, Chris Mackie and Jeremy Devine glide around each other, outlining chords with usually nothing busier than an eighth note. Their notes float gracefully, and because of the seemingly arbitrary nature of their picking, they serendipitously stumble into elegant harmonies several times in each tune. At their best, Mackie and Devine sound like a pair of church bells ringing from either end of a small village. At their worst, they sound like they are treading water waiting for the next idea to come, but this happens rarely.
The band’s charm is its restraint. Drums appear on only a couple of the tracks, and despite the chugging, insurgent beats, you don’t notice when they are gone. Even their liner notes are parsimonious-their shout-outs are limited to a simple, ” ‘preciate it.” And as with any good artists, they take advantage of white space to frame their big moments. On the semi-titular closing track, “And the World Smiles With You,” Sonna builds a 10-minute onslaught of “Cortez the Killer”-like thick, gooey bombast, only to fade out on a brief reprise of the album’s otherwise ubiquitous ringing phosphorescence.
Smile and the World Smiles With You doesn’t break any new ground, and it’s unlikely that this formula will keep over the years. But the album makes for a lovely listen, and Sonna certainly has the tastefulness and talent to continue thriving.