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.
But it is in the moments when the Brooklyn indie-pop outfit do run that risk – when they unabashedly embrace those lush, antique, New Wave and R&B sounds of the late ‘80s, and the feelings those sounds can give – that Limits Of Desire truly takes off.
Free At Dawn itself is an excellent example of how successful this kind of fearless retrospection can be. The track opens with a chord progression akin to Modern English’s I Melt With You, but quickly and confidently transitions into the kind of four-on-the-floor pop beat only Dr Luke would have suggested; the melody broods like the New Wave in singer Josh Kolenik’s rich lower register, and haunts like a true earworm. Similarly, Proper Spirit cuts, jangles, and shakes with a heady infusion of pop-metal guitars, Joy Division bass lines, and contemporary alternative vocals. It’s truly refreshing to hear such outdated instrumental sounds – a true subversion of expectations from a band whose melodies melt into a more predictable (though surely not incriminating) indie haze. Furthermore, the atmospheric disco-lite groove on No Stranger is almost danceable, or as close to danceable as Small Black can get. It is a weird, if buoyant, listen.
When the band does not explore their influences as assertively, their music blends in a little too closely with that of their peers. Canoe opens promisingly with a facsimile of the intro to Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, but even the Jessie Ware-like synth-soul production can’t save its meandering, rather vanilla melody. In the same vein, the rhythm’n’pop groove in Breathless is smartly crafted, but frustratingly unoriginal, and the melody is a lesser version of something Phoenix’s Thomas Mars might have cooked up.
Really, Small Black do sound much like their contemporaries – Limits Of Desire echoes with the voices of Neon Indian, Beach House and School Of Seven Bells (the latter perhaps especially so) – and not always in the best way. But it’s when they do what their contemporaries never quite dare to do that they establish an exciting new voice. Because on Limits Of Desire, Small Black not only welcome chillwave as an influence, but also all of chillwave’s own influences.