Monday, November 22

Record Review: Small Black [New Chain, Jagjaguwar Records]

by Rebecca Gayle
After the release of its compelling, subdued EP from the comfort of an uncle’s attic where the EP was recorded, the emerging Brooklyn-based duo, Small Black, continues to put itself on the music map with its first full-length album, New Chain, which was released under the Jagjaguwar label in October.

New Chain finds the original pair putting forth a much more polished package of the band’s mix of chill-wave / lo-fi indie rock. The clean-cut, mostly fuzz-free New Chain provides a rather stark departure from Small Black EP’s more DIY sound. Initially, listeners may be disappointed to bid farewell to the fuzzed-out aural blurriness of some of the EP’s best songs, especially since the sonic texture carved out a unique niche for Small Black as an emerging act. Furthermore, the supremely stellar quality of Small Black EP’s songs in terms of their lyricism, emotion, catchiness, and listen-ability makes it difficult for any early Small Black fan to accept that the band may be leaving its attic / bedroom roots and entering the studio to make some more polished material. (I, too, struggled to bid the EP adieu in lieu of listening to the band’s new work, simply because the EP’s content made a deep impression upon me as a listener and because I feared the uncertainty of the future, given that the past had been so good.) Although it may take some getting used to – and some effort to force oneself to avoid favoring the EP out of comfort and habit – even early Small Black followers need not fret, however, as New Chain marks a strong step forward in the exciting development of this emerging band.

New Chain opens with one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Camouflage”, which showcases the newly polished, reinvigorated version of Small Black’s characteristic subdued, ethereal sounds that pervade the entire album. Even with some of the lo-fi fuzziness getting cleaned up, Small Black still manages to infuse multiple layers of sonic effects, giving the listener an even sharper textured experience than before. “Hydra” – yet another standout song on the album – for example, provides a flowing wateriness appropriate for the track’s title that highlights the song’s hypnotizing gentleness and nostalgia. “Goons” provides a track with a heavier reliance on drum machines unseen in the rest of Small Black’s work that, along with its distortive vocal effects, makes for uniquely addictive listening. Providing yet another favorite on New Chain is the dreamy jadedness, anger, and rejection that are so subtly and beautifully expressed in “Light Curse.” (“You say I’m lazy / I don’t even want to go there / … / So I go away, so I go away / I don’t want to hear about the way you feel / … / Now that all of us have gone away / … / Light is the curse that remains.”)

Finally, New Chain’s title track provides yet another standout single – for a total of at least five very impressive tracks out of a very solid ten – that further encompasses the optimistic nostalgia and angst that is channeled throughout the entire album on several dimensions. Even alone, many of the songs from New Chain can stand quite strongly on their own, but the fusion of their unique sonic and lyrical elements works even better, giving the listener some variation in the listening experience while still creating a very unified whole. The strength of its songs individually and as a whole makes New Chain a standout in itself and not an album to be left unlistened to on the shelf, but one that should be on regular listening rotation – along with the songs of Small Black EP, of course, since both are too good to forget about or ignore.

Once the listener gives the new album a chance to prove itself, New Chain creates quite an impression, even rivaling Small Black EP and making the listener wonder why, in fact, they did not give New Chain more of a chance to begin with – as well as what they listened to before Small Black came along. With each subsequent listen, New Chain gives the ears and the mind a new sonic element, a new poetic, lyrical beauty, and a new favorite song to appreciate and brood over. Even in spite of the obvious upgrade in sonic production from Small Black EP to New Chain, Small Black still manages to preserve the very essence of its sound and the very principles that made the band’s earlier EP so addictively impressive – and so difficult to stop listening to.

Small Black has undoubtedly taken advantage of its new access to out-of-the-attic devices to produce this album, but the band demonstrates that, even in doing so – which it should do, at any rate – its unique, core sound will not disappear along with the vintage equipment.

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