Review : Small Black - New Chain
PitchforkRemember that scene in the first Wayne's World movie, when Wayne and Garth are able to travel the world with a little help from the magic of green screen? "Imagine being able to be magically whisked away to... Delaware... I'm in Delaware." Well it's that same locale that hypnogogic Brooklyn indie poppers Small Black traveled to get started on their debut LP, New Chain. It's actually less of a headscratcher than you think. Recorded in suburban seclusion in the First State, Small Black selected the location in hopes to try and tap back into the kind of motifs that their self-titled debut EP established-- nostalgia and dream-drunk melancholy chiefly among them. Unlike that ultra-personal, demo-quality introduction, New Chain marks the unveiling of a cleaner, more direct sound, thanks to the now-cemented four-piece lineup and improved production.
This isn't to say that that the band has shed the woozy, new wave vibe that got them lumped in with chillwave in the first place. New Chain doesn't make much of an attempt to skirt those signifiers, focusing more on electronics and rhythm. Most of the songs-- several of which could be classified as straight-up ballads-- are very simply constructed, relying on details to illicit feeling through a myriad of synth textures and vocal layers. There's a pretty simple equation that can be applied: The more compelling the details are, the more compelling the song is. The syrupy funk lurch of "Goons", those lava lamp bell tones on "Photojournalist", the bouncy drum programming on "Crisp 100s"-- all are elements that elevate these very patient pop songs and make them memorable.
Sometimes it's synthesized almost seamlessly. "New Chain" is both drowsy and insular, but a subtle, muted boogie and Josh Kolenik's vocal melody help lodge it into your head in ways that a flat track like the tryingly plain "Light Curse" can't. Small Black are often at their best when they can either make you move or get you to feel or remember something-- it's no wonder why "Despicable Dogs", a single from that first EP that managed to do both, is their most beloved. "New Chain", with it's gorgeous smattering of vivid synth patterns, is "Despicable Dogs" reupholstered: It still feels like a sunrise bike ride with a head full of weed, but this time in full-blown technicolor....full text
DustedmagazineIf nothing else, Web 2.0 has framed loneliness in a whole new high-tech way. Once, years ago, alienation might have taken the form of staying home with your dog alone for a whole weekend, not showering and refusing to answer the phone. Now, it’s a matter of email boxes stuffed with only spam, weeks of no comments on your blog, the realization that being constantly in touch with everyone you know on Facebook is pretty much the same as not knowing anyone at all. You feel like you’re connected, but are constantly pulled short by the vapidness, the insubstantiality of what you get from that connection. Put Small Black — and perhaps the whole glo-wave phenomenon — against that backdrop and it starts to make sense. Here is electronically hooked-in loneliness set to drum machine beats, a restless, self-referential transmission that looks more far substantial than it is.
New Chain is Small Black’s first full-length album, following a widely touted EP, whose single “Despicable Dogs” got remixed by Washed Out. Like the rest of the hypnogogic crew, Small Black’s Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner splice the confessional intimacy of bedroom pop to sleek dance, hip hop and new wave arrangements. Technology provides access to an arsenal of commercially-viable sounds — Cure-like synths, echoing hip hop beats, choirs of celestial backup singers — yet at the core, these songs are intimate and inward-looking, even solipsistic. These are small compositions projected on a big screen. No wonder they turn blurry around the edges.
Consider, for example, “Search Party,” whose soft focus new waveries swirl around the most fundamental bass lines, whose snapped off upbeats reverberate in clean white space. The singing, a chant of “there’s nothing to keep / you search for what you need” is the only fuzzy, hand-crafted sound, muttered almost, just shy of letting you know exactly what’s being said. The combination of anesthetically-clean arrangements and lo-fi singing makes the tune resemble a home-made Tears for Fears, which is just as disturbing as it sounds. There’s a war on here (and on other tracks) between the internal-ness of the songs and the stylish, empty polish of their surrounding elements.
At a couple of intervals — “Crisp 100s” in particular — Small Black reminds me of Lotus Plaza in its radiant, glowing atmospheres. Yet, where Lotus Plaza blurs the particulars in pursuit of transcendence, Small Black seems indistinct without a payoff. Not surprisingly, the band’s best songs have the most definite vocal melodies. “Photojournalist,” the disc’s highlight, brings slow, whispered singing up to the front of the mix, floating over machine drums and high, bubbly synths. There’s an unexpected friction in the live-sounding drums banging away in the background, bringing a welcome bit of sweat and drive into the picture....full text
BbcIt is not hard to see the appeal of Small Black, especially at such a time as now, when acts who covet the warm, fuzzy and spacey – usually together as equals – have risen to prominence, sparking a lorry-load of superfluous tags and several more convoys’ worth of artists to fill these spaces, ranging from the derivative to the innovative. With the release of their debut EP earlier this year, this New York quartet slotted firmly in the latter of those categories and they continue to do so with their first full-length offering, New Chain.
The album's brevity would appear to be a carefully considered aspect. Not running to much more than the EP's 27 minutes, it doesn't wear you down with endless extended jams and diversions. While many have been tempted to try for expansion on their debuts, Small Black keep on message throughout, landing their wares somewhere between M83 in a summer haze and a less hefty but still beat-inclined Toro y Moi.
Singer Josh Kolenik's woven melodies are unmistakable in their mistakability. Deliberately nondescript, they fuse with the various parts of high and low register accompaniment, using the reverberating drums as their glue. Occasionally they simply fizzle away in the background, but the times they burst out beyond that are the most glorious, the greatest example of this being the woozy fairground ride that is Photojournalist. Dynamics are not key, and nor are they exploited – the band prefers to keep the levels of intensity constantly, but not strenuously, high. Little respite is offered and Search Party acts as one prolonged chorus with passages marginally more dazzling than others but at all times the modest side of garish.
Although there is much which doesn't automatically burn itself to the cerebral cortex, the standout sections are not found rooted in melody but in the less obvious aspects, like the siren-styled synth motifs of Goons. These songs could be the dream sequences to 80s films which were never made. Indeed, album finisher Invisible Grid is New Chain's closing credits, demonstrating the approach of the previous nine chunks in one bite. And they are chunks you will want to sample again and again....full text
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