The self-titled debut full-length from Chicago’s Sonoi manages to become more than the sum of its diverse parts, though somewhat inconsistently. The intricate indie pop sections never clash with the swimming, ambient passages. They don’t knock you over the head with their technical expertise, but it’s also quite clearly on display. Where they should falter, they very clearly don’t. Where they should excel, occasionally they linger too far in the background.
The album opens with “Red Ants”, a willowy, floating melody reminiscent of Grizzly Bear, guitarist Adam Busch (formerly of Manishevitz) trawling the sky while percussionist/composer Pierce Doerr skips out a polyrhythmic beat and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Hembrey draws out the bass from a piano. A minute and a half or so in, Busch’s voice wanders in, a visitor breaking through the tree line into your campground. The added layer of twinkly synth later in the tune is plain gorgeous, letting the tune fade into sugary heaven.
“Clouds” follows, Hembrey’s bass playing five or so notes throughout the majority of the tune, a dryly rollicking and repetitive bit of fluff, Busch’s lyrics wordy and wafting. In a way, the largely two-chord piece felt like a nerdy acolyte of the Velvet Underground, repetitive drones of lilting piano instead of feedback, lyrics about clouds and insects instead of heroin. On the other side of this equation, though, the repeated guitar riff of “Sherry Fall” begins to grate, despite the big, Springsteen-y vocal lines.
The Wilco-esque dreamy pop of “Eva Baton” hinges heavily on the watery and tinkly bits of fluff added by Hembrey. There are wavering water effects here, glittery metallic confetti there. It’s a very strong piece that leaves too quickly, the song fading underneath looped, heavily reverbed vocals and the confetti. The weird-o blues “R Pryor 1” interlude (and the sequel, later)is Chicago bliss, alto and tenor saxophones crooning under wobbly guitar themes that get delay-ed and spun out into space.
The outsider art fairy tale named “Cat and the Barbie” relies on a stomping rhythm from Doerr’s drums and Hembrey’s piano, Busch’s Dylan-lite vocal delivery on full display. The piece burns slowly, fading out before its overstayed its welcome. “Angeline” brings back the drone, Doerr’s drums eerily wavering between the headphones as Hambrey’s piano drone hammers into the center of the skull. Delayed, distorted guitar drips over the top, Busch’s atmospheric Magical Mystery Tour vocals popping up for a moment, alto sax improvisations the cherry on top.
The utterly snaky “Anchor Tattoo” seems grateful to fellow Chicagoans’ Tortoise’s Morricone-leaning stuff, but with ghostly additions of frail synths and reverb-soaked background vocals. The piece lasts a long time, the space unfolding and expanding with the universe. The super-ambient “Framed” comes next, trombones and horns clouds circle as a light summer rain of effected guitars fall on the slow-moving bass and drums move across the ground. The knob-twiddling of “Rotativa” is somewhat forgettable, instrumentally mesmerizing, yet without any true climax or release. “Friends in Dry Places” opens with a driving loop of galloping cello, swirling UFOs of sound, percussive objects falling down stairs, flutes flapping in the breeze. The piece builds slowly, quietly before fading.
This album is a can’t miss for anyone who considers themselves adventurous, but with pop sensibilities. There are flashes of so many Chicago music scenes: the pop grandiosity of Wilco, the jazz sensibility of Tortoise, the experimental nature of Fred Lonberg-Holm (that cello in “Friends”). Plus, it’s all streaming on their Web site, so how could you not give it a listen?