The B-Side: “The Universe Smiles Upon You”


Burak Cingi/Redferns

Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr, Laura Lee, and Mark Speer of Khruangbin perform in London, England.

It’s pretty difficult to look cool while walking down a hill, but if someone does it while listening to “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” at least they’ll feel like they do. The debut album from soul trio Khruangbin (Kroong-bin) is a soundtrack perfect for everyday activities including car-riding, ambling along down the street, and of course, hill-walking. However, due to a lack of distinction between the tracks, this album serves as not much more than excellent background music.

The value of “The Universe Smiles Upon You” lies in its jam-session design in which the instruments sound like each other’s friends. Donald Johnson’s drums are always present and clear, but never overwhelming, bassist Laura Lee holds down the low end with poise, and Mark Speer’s guitar warbles pleasantly for the entirety of the album’s forty minutes.

Most of “The Universe Smiles Upon You” is instrumental. The songs hold up fine without words, but they sacrifice stability in the process. 

The track “August Twelve” stretches for an album-high six minutes and thirteen seconds but would have felt the same at half the length. This may be for the best, however, due to their nearly identical progressions, it’s often difficult to tell when one song ends and another begins. “Two Fish and an Elephant” flows into “Dern Kala” with similar guitar sounds, similar vibes, and similar runtimes. At least “August Twelve ” is honest.

Like a lot of post-1950 instrumental music, “The Universe Smiles Upon You” has aged well. It was released nearly six years ago, but sounds like it could have been sent to streaming services just yesterday. The production is sparse but immaculate, and recording engineer Steve Christensen works with Speer to create smooth-sounding tracks that feel distinctly modern yet also timeless.

While the tracks in the album are pretty indistinguishable, the band’s sound is still strong. Their songs draw inspiration from around the globe and incorporate the sounds of various cultures into one relatively seamless and complete album. 

“The Universe Smiles Upon You” doesn’t stand for much, but it stands on its own, and often, that’s enough.