Small Reactions have consistently layered chiming guitars on driving beats for the better part of the last decade. Their first LP, 2014’s Similar Phantoms, blusters sprightly, pulsing post-punk with poppy vocal melodies. 2017’s RXN_002 is more careful and psychedelic but still vehemently guitar-driven. Consisting of Scotty Hoffman on guitar and vocals, Ross Politi on bass and backing vocals, and Sean Zearfoss on drums, Small Reactions are back with New Age Soul. It’s their third full-length release and the first since signing with Sofaburn Records. Produced by Ben Etter, who has worked with Deerhunter, Kaiser Chiefs, and Franz Ferdinand, New Age Soul is made of ten cleaner indie-pop compositions than what Small Reactions have given us in the past. They are more painstaking and slower-paced at times, less hyper and noisy.
The Atlanta-based group are a clear contemporary of DIIV and Wild Nothings, bands that can display passionate elegance with a simple setup. Even with the addition of strategically placed keyboard parts, the instrumentation is stripped-down yet rich with dynamics. Most importantly, the album is catchy. The basslines, the melodies, and the drums pull you in and make you move. New Age Soul is full of head-nodders and danceable tracks. The title track manifests a wide, festival-sized sound in the chorus, proclaiming a refreshed yet classic sentiment in its lyrics (“The streets stay a-glow / And our hands unfold / Keeping me close / We’re new age souls”).
New Age Soul is structurally tight, yet the band still find a way to make room for themselves to noodle around. As with their previous records, this one reveals a mastery of the middle eight, a sort of stretched-out interlude following the song’s second chorus. Small Reactions use this as a point when listeners can follow the band in getting entranced by the music. It’s easy to imagine the members of Small Reactions falling into a meditative state while playing. Their music seems to conjure this effect.
“Speak and Dress” resonates with a hypnotic flow, a playful bassline, and tingly guitar picking. “Want To” is buoyant and features a humble, contemplative guitar solo. “Park Place”, accompanied by a DIY music video, boasts crescendoing energy akin to Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”. It feels like a steady rolling force, a sense of tumbling or spinning without being out of control. Small Reactions execute their music with stamina and a sense of loyalty towards giving their songs all they’ve got.
There is a disparity between the lyrics and the tone of the music. Scotty Hoffman has a beautiful way of singing about his dark disposition. Like their previous albums, New Age Soul is lyrically dark and confessional, filtering life through an existential lens and recognizing the bleaker parts of life. The album is rife with motifs of forgotten people and being blinded or negligent. Hoffman bravely admits his caustic nature in “Ritual Goodbyes”: “Wicked to the bone, I’m a rotten soul / You don’t even know — I will bleed you dry.” This sentiment is guided by a new wave drum beat and a keyboard melody with post-punk strumming patterns.
Their poppy, indie rock sensibilities make you welcome the dark lyrical content, and this may be the most exciting thing about their music. The danceable, new wavey “Suffer My Heart” is about coping with loss, processing the sharp pain of loneliness, and possibly distress for the sake of superficiality. Hoffman sings “never again” in falsetto, adding poignancy and a sense of breaking through emotional barriers. At times, New Age Soul is grim yet sonically clean and lifted. It’s tense but not abrasive.
But New Age Soul isn’t all cynicism and alienation. Songs like “Park Place” and “Want To” breathe an uplifted and grateful lyrical tone, a desire to continue, a feeling of not wanting to dwell on the painful parts of life. “Faces” is a perfect song to accompany a lonely epiphany. “Police State” and “Peace Offering” round out the experience of New Age Soul by embodying recent sociopolitical sentiments. “There Is a Light” ends the album on an optimistic note.
Indeed, New Age Soul is an emotionally and intellectually well-rounded album. Fans might miss the more frantic, distorted riffs that made up much of their previous records. Still, Small Reactions stay consistent while showing growth and maturity with every new effort.