Release Date: May 14, 2013
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic
Small Black’s first two albums effectively married the opposing thoughts of “Wow, that’s a lot of synths” and “Wow, that sounds really good.” On their third, entirely self-produced record, Small Black decided on something a little simpler and a little more analog. There’s a real, live guitar this time around and the synths come across as distinct entities. Part of that simplified process seems to have muted Small Black’s herky-jerky spirit.
"I've been keeping my, keeping myself from you/Hoping you, hoping you just come to." Such are the softly uttered lyrics that kick off Small Black's second album, Limits of Desire, another exercise in '80s-tinged dream-pop after 2010's debut, New Chain. Despite the nebulous guitars and slow-building drums recalling Joshua Tree-era U2, it's the opening lines of melodramatic pacemaker "Free At Dawn" that set the tone for the album-lovesick, wistful, disarmingly naive. Like any normal pacemaker, the song as a whole briefly excites before giving way to the record's true contenders.
There’s a parallel between Limits of Desire and Wittgenstein’s/Jastrow’s famed rabbit-duck illusion. Depending on your perspective, on whether you’re standing up, sitting down, or scratching your armpit, you can perceive the album in one of at least two ways: Either it hits you as a work of quixotic optimism, of a stubborn obliviousness to doubt and all that’s cynical, or it leaves its mark as a soundtrack to unwashable melancholy and longing. But which is it “really” — the hopeful rabbit or the wistful duck? Well, as with the optical illusion, the answer is probably an unhelpful “both” and “neither,” since like all artistic creations, the LP justifies its existence by functioning as a suitable projector screen and validator for our states of body and mind, and as such, its significance is liable to change with the volatility of our selves.
Small Black has persistently rejected being branded as a chillwave act, but their follow-up to 2010's New Chain proves once again that the native Brooklynites are definitely on the high end of that much-maligned subgenre's spectrum. Limits of Desire expands the density of the band's sound substantially, transitioning from the lushly downtempo bedroom beats of their debut to a heavier, more expansive aesthetic that's indicative of their maturation. There's a flurry of stylistic influences, both antiquated and modern, from New Order and the Cure to Phoenix and M83, yet Small Black retains an approach to manufacturing synthy grooves that's all their own.
Since arriving during the initial rush of chillwave in 2008, Small Black never had a problem fitting in with whatever’s been happening in indie rock at any moment-- meaning their music threatens to blend in far more than stand out. Grotty, homemade glo-fi singles such as “Despicable Dogs” turned a few ears in their native Brooklyn, but by the time Small Black cleaned up for their 2010 Jagjaguwar debut New Chain, they came off like a regular ol’ synth-pop act with good timing as opposed to an obsessive tinkerer like Toro Y Moi or Neon Indian. The less said about their hip-hop mixtape, the better-- just know that they were hardly the only dudes trying to make cloud-rap beats in 2011.
Small Black are not a British band. This may be the crappiest opening to a review DiS has run yet, but as the absolutely-not-chillwave Brooklynites' new album Limits of Desire demonstrates, they have never ever experienced this glorious May grey and drizzle. So yes, this is an absolutely-not-chillwave, laid back, breezy slice of intelligent pop music from a reasonably acclaimed indie four piece from New York.
Within the very first moments of Small Black’s latest release Limits Of Desire, even before the vocals of opening track Free At Dawn had pattered in, before the beat had been given a chance to rise from the haze, questions surfaced. Was this the right file? Is this actually some The Cure reissue? Those chords… that synth… is this a long lost New Wave album? There is always inherent danger in appropriating sounds from the past to create something new – a risk of over-imitation, of over-influence, of under-imagination. And despite a deceptive opening, for the most part, Small Black, a band known initially for their of-the-moment, chillwave antics, generally don’t run that risk: Limits Of Desire is not enough of a deviation from contemporary indie-pop fare to put them in real jeopardy of being a tribute band.
Small Black once specialized in a particularly noisy strain of chillwave, but they've since rounded off all the jagged edges from their sound in favour of glossy synths and crisp mid-tempo beats. Limits of Desire opener "Free at Dawn" sets the mood with heart-swelling chords that channel the cinematic earnestness of classic U2, and the rest of the album follows suit with teen movie keyboards and '80s-indebted pop anthems. The only trouble is that nearly every track captures the same sense of John Hughes-worthy nostalgia, with no cut standing out above the rest.
With their sophomore record Limits of Desire, Brooklyn’s Small Black said they are seeking ”modern connectivity and interaction.” With the album’s 10 tracks, the foursome find their emotional treasure, only at the cost of their more alluring production components. The appeal of the band’s 2010 debut, New Chain, stemmed from songs with simple structures embellished with exhilarating tweaks and flourishes. But as the band began to move away from their chillwave label, their pursuit of clarity led them to strip away those “details” and rely on baser emotional sentiments.
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.
Implied by the cover of two nudes embracing on a ladder, Small Black's second album showcases a stripped-down, more organic side of the chillwave group. Previous releases (2009's self-titled EP and to a lesser degree 2010's New Chain) epitomized the gauzy aspects of chillwave, but Limits of Desire attempts to showcase their talents as a full touring band and not just the bedroom project of one member. Featuring Josh Hayden Kolenik (keys, vocals), Ryan Heyner (guitar, keys, vocals), Juan Pieczanski (bass, guitar), and Jeff Curtin (drums, percussion), with trumpet accompaniment by Aaron Rockers on three tracks, Small Black have moved from cloudy cassette tape to a big, live studio room approach for their sophomore full-length.
Throughout each song on Small Black’s elegant new album, Limits Of Desire, there exists duelling themes of both an endless search for meaningful partnership, as well as a question of whether that blissful union is even possible in this disconnected, distant age of ours. The striking, symbolic album art epitomizes that unsteady partiality, showing that intimacy is achievable to those who work for it, but only to a certain extent, and exposing that vulnerable side of ourselves always comes with risks and hidden peril. And while that might be a lot of charged significance to place on a batch of shimmering synth-pop tunes, the Brooklyn quartet invites that type of depth and meaning to be found within their sonic excursions, for they are searching for answers themselves throughout these pleading and poignant numbers.
With 2010 debut full-length New Chain, Small Black sank amid the chillwave swell of the turn of the decade. While the Brooklyn quartet's sophomore effort proves lustrously polished and the rhythms more pronounced, it still treads in lukewarm waters that lull comfortably numb. The relentless yearning in its dreamlike electronic haze and the breathless sighs of Josh Kolenik works well to a point, seducing on opener "Free at Dawn" and "Canoe," yet never moves forward, the compelling Eighties glaze washing from one song to the next and ultimately settling into a decompression tank that strips all sensory stimulation.