Smile Down Upon Us: Smile Down Upon Us

To say that Smile Down Upon Us's self-titled second full-length would likely appeal as much to children as adults shouldn't be construed as disparagement but rather as high praise. It's not easy to create music that's playful and filled with childlike wonderment without sounding twee, but that's exactly the trick London-based multi-instrumentalist Keiron Phelan and Tokyo-resident singer/electronicist moomLoo pull off on their excellent sophomore effort. That sense of playfulness isn't limited to their music, either: the duo's 2008 debut album, recorded in its entirety through file exchange, was also eponymously titled.

The new recording's filled with unexpected left turns, and just when you think you know where a particular song's heading it takes you by surprise. A case in point is “One Feathered Shoal,” a lilting reverie that initially hints the album might be headed in an ambient-field recordings direction when moomLoo recites a poem against a backdrop of nature sounds. But a shift in tone quickly occurs when Phelan's baritone appears to intone the same words but this time accompanied by acoustic guitar, electronic textures, and woodwinds.

The entrancement doesn't stop there, but instead carries on for the full forty-one-minute measure of the nine-song collection. Rich in acoustic guitars, woodwinds, vocals (Japanese and English), and electronic touches, each song arrangement exemplifies a careful consideration of mood and attention to detail. In that regard Phelan and moomLoo are abetted on the project by, among others, guitarist/percussionist David Sheppard (Phelan's partner in State River Widening), cellist Katie English, and sonic alchemist Tui (Orla Wren). That makes for a recording so rich that moments arise during “Dance With the Silver,” for instance, that wouldn't sound out of place on Pet Sounds.

With moomLoo's joyful vocal leading the way and flutes and psychedelic synthesizer treatments close behind, “Magical Breath” charms with an infectious, child-like spirit. That light-hearted tone infuses “Dragon Song” with a similar kind of joy, so much so that one could easily picture Phelan and moomLoo singing its lyrics with a classroom of children. On “Butterfly Morning” (a cover of a song from the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue), Phelan and moomLoo memorably pair up for the vocal, with his deep voice an effective contrast to her soft coo.

Numerous genres and styles are referenced along the way. Reggae rhythms animate “Millwall” to give the album an unusual twist, for instance, while the jaunty “Dragon Song” flirts with jazz in its swinging clarinet solo. Things take another surprising turn when a funk drum pattern surfaces to power “Gusano's Travels,” a vocal song that includes robotic counting in Polish (neither of which Keiron nor moomLoo speak, naturally).

To say that I'm charmed and beguiled by the recording would be an understatement, and listeners with a love for all things Lullatone and Psapp should find much to love about Smile Down Upon Us, too. That Phelan and moomLoo's music can overflow with incident without sounding overworked and still retain its playful quality also must count as some kind of accomplishment.

May 2015