Music Reviews

Review // Small Black: New Chain

January 1, 2012

Small Black, you had me at “Despicable Dogs.”  The star single of your self-titled debut EP (Jagjaguwar; 2010).

Late to the chillwave party, I recently stumbled upon the fourtet’s 2010 LP, New Chain (Jagjaguwar; 2010), and it put me in a reflectronic, romantic mood (if you’ll excuse the portmanteau).  Small Black have managed to draw from the indiesphere’s upsurge of ’80s anamnesis by wisely recording in their hometown locale, Delaware, and getting away from the echo chamber of revival trends that presently crowd their New York borough.  While these Brooklyn-based chillwavers seem to fall in line with their ’80s revivalist colleagues — Twin Shadow, Neon Indian, Wild Nothing, Com Truise, M83, Washed Out — they do manage to conjure the painful, new wave nostalgia of a decade’s worth of eyeliner melancholy.  As an unabashed romanticist in my own right, it made for an ideal trip.

The production is cleaner, this time around, and their dream-pop sensibilities are focused and deliberate, particularly in lieu of their previous effort.  As such, tracks like “Photojournalist,” “Crisp 100s,” “Goons,” and “Sun Was High (So Was I)”, manage to outshine the flatter wooziness of their album counterparts as sweet ballads whose cassette tapes ooze syrup and childhood memories.  New Chain prioritizes bouncy rhythms; burping bitcrushed overtones and puckish bells; pitch-bent 8-bit woos; juicy, simplistic basslines; and the impression of vocals over the strain of clarity and “meaning”.

In fact, the biggest criticism I have of this album is its excessive use of airy plug-ins and filters, which largely convey flatness.  The nostalgia is there, the emotional receptors they target are struck, but the crispness of these melodies is somewhat lost in the aftermath.  What’s left is a vaguely familiar bittersweetness that harkens back to the illusion of simpler sociopolitical times.

This isn’t unwelcome, of course.  In this nation’s tempestuous economic climate, it’s no wonder us urban would-be mavens binge on chillwave as though the Mayan calendar spelled doom for tomorrow’s new year.  The Reagan era forever embodies that time of my childhood where the waking life was no less than a teen fantasy, a John Hughes-induced daydream that fawned after Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, or Sixteen Candles; that rooted for Corey Haim in David Seltzer’s Lucas; that feared for Jason Patric‘s humanity in Joel Schumacher‘s The Lost Boys (which arguably stands as the latent “fuck you” to the Twilight franchise, mind you).  Small Black cunningly preys on these shoulderpadded, stretch-stirrup sentiments, while overlaying them with updated production tools.  Condensing the best of the 80s and leaving everything else out.  This is what the better chillwave artists do best, I suppose.

Yet, it’s the cultural and historical elements of this electronic subgenre of music that I fear younger chillwave scenesters are completely missing out on.  That is to say: The nostalgia factor.  But hey, that’s OK.  Good music is good music.

New Chain is viscously engorged with ambiguous details.  Its spring coil beats; synth brushes; and toasty, washed out melodies can get rather daunting when taken from intro to outro.  At times, I yearned for the upfront verse/chorus melodies that the vocals promised to congeal.  Instead, the amalgam of New Chain‘s ideas seem to create the “impression” of a solid group of songs.  While that’s certainly not atypical of the genre at stake here, it is an approach I’d like to hear Small Black evolve from.  I’m looking forward to their future.  In the meantime, do be sure to enjoy this album.  It’s a sneaky little grower, and a romantic jogging companion.

3.5

[Fan video by neszero333]

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