Small Black Small BlackNew Chain
The voice of Small Black, Josh Kolenik, and his second in command, Ryan Heyner, started to release their own sound inventions, like so many others today, including the crossover bosses like Beach Fossils and Best Coast. We aren’t insinuating that Small Black is one of the hypes of the year (because it’s a bit late for that) or a new group of supreme quality (Beach Fossils) which, nevertheless, goes unnoticed (although almost). In reality, the work that Kolenik and Heyner offer us is far from their main influences (read Bowie and Eno) due to the typical beginner’s mistakes, whose ideas seem to roll around and shoot off in all directions, confusing the audience a little. This beginning, “New Chain”, to start with, has a base that is too 80’s and classic to get the attention of the cultured crowd who are only interested in what sounds different and innovative. Small Black’s proposal isn’t convincing because of the canons of the critics, but rather because it is softer than ermine. Under the mantle of claps and coffee-pot synthesisers are hidden sinuous, elaborately-worked atmospheres. Kolenik himself says that Small Black is the same as the bad word “casio-dream-noise-pop”, and he isn’t wrong.
The “Casio” part is found in “Search Party” (with the Pet Shop Boys circa “Actually” in the background, and where we can almost hear the sound of the synthesiser bounce on the plastic of a radiocasette player). An aside: the Casio, curiously, is paired with rap in popular culture, but except for Kolenik’s obvious kneeling to Public Enemy or Wu-Tang Clan (don’t be afraid, there are no rappers on the album); at most there is tacky clapping (the Vangelis ones that we hear on “Panthers”). The “dream” part smells like morning dew in the soft electronic music and conciliating echoes of “Crisp 100s”. It’s also in the swollen, evocative quality of the organic, dreamy “Camouflage” (the adult version of Mike Oldfield’s “Songs of Distant Earth”). The only thing that Kolenik makes a mistake with is “noise”, which should be replaced by something like “chill-wave”: this is something we enjoyed in it’s day with groups like Light Pollution or Fol Chen. Stylistic resources? Reverberated crescendos, a classic on the menu (in the very 80’s “Hydra”), or the obviously astral sounds that make one unconsciously classify the single “Photojournalist” as space pop (notice that it vaguely calls to mind Oriental aesthetics, like Fol Chen managed to at times).
So why, then, do Small Black seem smaller than they are? Curiously, one of their main decisions is partly to blame: the arrangements, wonderfully orchestrated by the production of Nicolas Vernhes (who we saw with Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, so look out). I think that on one hand the aesthetic and the “new old sounds” give Small Black’s songs something that identifies them, but with time and repeated listening, they lock them into their own world, not allowing more direct feelings to arise. The example is “Light Curse”: the differences between this cut and any cut from Beach House’s magnificent “Teen Dream” define Small Black well (a less temperamental voice than that of Victoria Legrand hides behind arrangements that at times give the feeling that they are trying too hard to catch your attention). So, Small Black would do better to abandon themselves to diaphanous, direct electronics from the start. And even though they fall into their own trap, we also have to say that they find the solution as well with cuts like the song “New Chain”, the perfect mix between Beach House and Fol Chen, plus the optimistic reverbs of Light Pollution.
So the future is a mixture, one of those potions that is scary to see when the cocktail maker is shaking bottles of colours that don’t go together at all. He shakes them, and out comes a brew with a suspicious smell and telltale bubbles. But you have to try it. Some of the best combinations are born from the method of trial and error. And to tell the truth, some, like this one from Small Black, leave the nicest taste in your mouth.