New Yorkers Make Promising Waves

Small Black
New Chain
Jagjaguwar

In April of last year, Brooklyn duo Small Black released a rough, self-titled EP of songs they recorded in each other’s apartments. This EP — and its opening track “Despicable Dogs” in particular — turned out to be one of the most charming, emotionally evocative releases associated with the  chillwave movement. It was also ghetto as shit.

On their debut full-length album, New Chain, Small Black doubles its membership and cleans up most of this production-related grime, accentuating the ’80s dance textures and R&B influences that were once buried.

Within the first 30 seconds of opening track “Camouflage,” it’s apparent that Small Black is branching out of the expected lo-fi reverbs. Rather than work through the thick beds of distorted haze that enveloped the first album, the band explores a variety of synth waves, sampled voices and polyrhythmic percussion.

Throughout every song, Small Black fills every available space with a patchwork of nostalgic new wave sounds. Even on more subdued tracks like the almost-ballad “Hydra,” Small Black leaves little room for silence, building from a short, water-like intro to a pulsating synth-pop explosion.

Though it would be easy for this approach to become overwhelming, Small Black still manages to keep it interesting. This willingness to experiment with texture — turning layers of conflicting instruments into a harmonious whole — is undoubtedly the album’s greatest strength; even on lyrically forgettable songs, Small Black’s dense musicality makes the album more than worth your time.

New Chain is a trip of an album. The soundscapes are always impressive, but without any choruses to match, the tracks aren’t necessarily memorable. There’s nothing as catchy as “Despicable Dogs” here, nor is there anything that displays the kind of devotion to songwriting that made the band’s debut EP stand out.

So in a sea of bands that value blog-worthy musical trends over long-term substance, Small Black doesn’t yet have the magic to separate from the pack, but they are certainly off to a promising start. (7/10)

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