Are guitars outdated? No, they’re not. Everyone still loves guitars, but stay with me, here. The ‘00s saw new wave revivalism take on epic proportions in indie music, with bands employing the sound of the Factory Records’ scene and their offspring to varying degrees (and, it must be said, to wildly varying degrees of success). Synths and programmed beats were washed away by the guitar gods of the ‘90s—Pavement, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Radiohead. Then, all of the sudden, the new century brought 808s and keyboards back into vogue—Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead. This is all overly simplified, sure, but the broader trends are right there in your record collection or digital music archive.
Now, in the new decade, bands are perhaps more interested in synthesizing—sorry—the sounds of these supposedly disparate movements into a fresh sound all its own. Brooklyn’s Small Black fits somewhere among those artists, building layers of blissful reverb-soaked melodies on top of thudding, insistent beats. Yes, they’re doing it electronically, with synths and programming. However, their sound has less to do with Warp Records and Kid A than with shoe gaze and other late ‘80s/mid-‘90s guitar-loving genres. When they strike this balance successfully, Small Black makes exceptionally beautiful music.
“Camouflage” sounds like early the Jesus and Mary Chain trading in distortion and guitars for stacks of keyboards. Principle songwriter Ryan Heyner and the rest of the band layer different synth noise into a lovely patchwork: fuzzed-out basslines inflate the simple mechanical beats, atmospheric squalls fill in the empty space, and sharp Casio tones carry the melody to the front of the mix. Josh Kolenik’s vocals are sleepy and exhaled more than sung. The entire effect proves ethereal, a blissful moment of pop song craft that soars to the rafters unencumbered by the weight of its influences.
The band manages to strike gold in this manner more than once. “Search Party” shares DNA with New Order’s prescient synth melodies, and “Photojournalist” moves its looping beat away from gaudy Ratatat territory to the subtle shoe gaze tinge of M83. These tracks marry a rich sense of space to immediately satisfying hooks. Small Black is at their best here, indulging their pop sensibilities to the same level as their desire to create moodier, meatier compositions.
Unfortunately, the latter half of New Chain gets carried away on atmosphere. “Crisp 100s” has enough dissonance thrown into its pretty backbone to make it interesting, and the stuttering beat underlying “Panthers” brings a nice change of pace. As for the tracks in between, Kolenik doesn’t bring the same strength to his melodies as he did on the album’s A-side; and crucially, neither do Heyner and the band.
Rather, the songs become exercises in tone. That tone is always pleasant, consistently non-confrontational. Small Black sometimes gets lumped into the chill-wave trend, sharing bills and fans with acts like Washed Out and Real Estate. The band shouldn’t take it to heart—they clearly have more to offer than contentedly stoned background music. They’d do well to explore their own record collections again and not get caught up listening too intently to the music of their tourmates.
// Notes from the Road
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