Ah, chillwave. The unfortunately named subgenre has seen a rash of critically adored bands in the past few years—Toro Y Moi and Washed Out in particular—but for whatever traction it’s gained, it has never really shook off seeming like the repository for the worn out tropes in indie music current. Texture-heavy synthesizers, disaffected vocals, and a low-key vibe aren’t just things one is likely to read as description in a press release for some up-and-coming indie label nowadays; they’re also hallmark characteristics of this still-nascent subgenre, a style with only four years to its name. Some groups, such as Warm Ghost, have foregone the label altogether, whereas others, such as Washed Out mastermind Ernest Greene, have to some degree invited it. Yet whether or not one wishes to categorize a particular LP as “chillwave” or not, she could easily file it under “indie” in the broadest sense and it would be more or less accurate. As it’s been performed and refined, chillwave is really just indie with ‘80s synth brushstrokes dominating the canvas.
Such is especially the case with Small Black, one of the seemingly countless young bands coming out of Brooklyn. Much like the awkward hug shared by the two naked people on the cover of its second album Limits of Desire, the quartet embraces just about any adjective used to describe both chillwave and indie, producing a record that’s refreshingly unoccupied with the desire to fit into a specific frame of reference. (In the past, the group has .) No song better captures the band’s desire to expand its sound following its self-titled EP and debut LP New Chain better than “Free at Dawn”, which kicks of Limits of Desire in a promising fashion. Even though vocalist Josh Kolenick’s lyrics here—as they do on the rest of the album—leave much to be desired, his echoey tenor is complemented by an insistent beat in the verses that leads to a wonderful chorus that simmers and shimmers in a wholly distinct way. Whereas some of indie’s bigger names—M83 in particular—would take a chorus like “Free at Dawn’s” and blow it up into an arena-filling, widescreen grandeur, Small Black deliberately only lets a little bit of epic seep into the track. The focus here, as is the case with many of Small Black’s stylistically similar contemporaries, is on mood and lattice-like synth layering.
Yet while the group’s carefree attitude toward genre saves Limits of Desire from becoming yet another “Millennials-do-the-‘80s” clone LP, these songs on the whole don’t pack much of a punch. (With respect to the former, the John Hughes high school dance character of “Proper Spirit’s” opening part does veer close to self-parody.) “Free at Dawn” may be striking for its ability to rein in a potentially explosive hook, but a good deal of these cuts could benefit from a little thrust. Much on this LP shows that Small Black is quite adept at a pop hook, but the preeminence of mood here drowns out what could have been some more immediate songs. The infectious synth in the chorus of “Canoe” and the elated chorus of the Tears for Fears inspired “Sophie” are instances where the band is headed in the right direction; unfortunately, these are the less prevalent sonic choices made in the recording of this album. Astral vocal effects, woozy tempos, and chilled-out electronics are the bread and butter of Limits of the Desire. These need not be bad things, of course, but when trying to carve out a unique sound—especially after openly disavowing a genre label—it’s best to avoid the typical pratfalls of said genre, in this case getting caught up in texture to the extent that the music often just feels flat. There’s enough appealing material buried beneath the synthesizers on Limits of Desire such that it’s clear there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of Small Black; for now, then, it’s up for the group to let out the energy that’s waiting to move from potential to kinetic.