October 27, 2009
Small Black | Small Black
2009 | Unsigned
Is Small Black the best release by a Brooklyn artist this year? Maybe, but a more apt question is: does anyone even care anymore, even if it is? As our once-little scene explodes more and more each month, any band able to book the Market Hotel is going to end up as part of Pitchfork’s “Rising” list; every blog is going to post their “single premier”/their exclusive video performance in an obscure household area (perhaps washtub?)/four or five Memory Tapes remixes/pictures of them in Halloween costumes/attempt analyses of their bar fights/take stabs at them for developing the hype that they did/try to destroy them.
Even I, by beginning a review of a band criticizing the literal hype machine (not HypeMachine; I have no beef with streaming social media), am part of the problem. After all, I probably wouldn’t have heard about them unless Pitchfork posted opening track “Despicable Dogs” as one of their Best New Tracks. Small Black is only available as an independently issued 10-inch, not a CD, and maybe us here at JM.com will backlash at them when they reissue the EP next year on Matador or some shit, once it makes Pitchfork Best New Music.
All predictions aside, right now, Small Black’s five-song self-titled debut EP sounds pretty fucking good. It’s 25 minutes of unflinching bedroom pop. Other, more genre-happy blogs have dubbed this sound “glow-fi” or “chill-wave” – the band makes heavy use of electronics, fuzz, and pulsing high toned synths. The synths coming up out of the fuzz is apparently analogous to the way glitter shines on a black page – thus, “glow-fi” is born. But music doesn’t glow, and sound doesn’t actually shimmer, so let’s leave poor descriptors to the other guys.
What counts are the songs, and this collection, though short, is as close as it gets to perfect. When “Despicable Dogs” first made its way to the blogs, it was described as a languid, beach-combing summer jam. But now, deep into October, it sounds a lot more melancholy, impenetrable, alienated, stuck in itself, and if that doesn’t sound like the colorless end of autumn, what does? The chorus, “Do it without me/ Do it when I’m gone,” is stark and simple, as resigned as it immediately sounds. Does it sound optimistic? Sure. But unlike most similar projects, which are immediately depressing and hide small moments of joy (Again, Memory Tapes, we’re looking in your direction) Small Black sounds pleased and content, and their depth comes from that buried melancholia.
“Dogs” transitions into “Weird Machines” beginning with a thick, industrial bass, laid under screeching guitar scratches. It’s probably here where you get the first sense of how skilled members Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner are at arranging. Much like Grizzly Bear, Small Black fills their recording with flourishes – low volume “La-la-la’s” and distant howls flow through the EP. The difference is that, on Small Black, this all sounds incredibly organic; Kolenik and Heyner are naturals, and don’t need a full string section to show off their chops.
Next is “Bad Lover,” a slow-stepping love song, with a chorus that sounds oddly reminiscent Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” drenched in reverb, and fleshed out with gorgeous vocal harmonies. “Pleasant Experience” builds slow and steadily, and seems to be the bedroom pop equivalent of a Yeasayer song, with the way it’s synth chugs in and out of the background. The song is true to its title; never innocuous, but treading that fine line between pleasant and ignorable. Luckily, it stays on the side of pleasant, and engages the entire way through, the chorus bouncing along, “You could be right about/ You could be right about.”
Finally, the EP concludes with “Lady in the Wires,” a joyous, four and a half minute jam that seethes in a mass of percussion, over-dubbed vocals, and…fuck it, shimmering synthesizers (sorry; the synths are really shimmery here. Like, if this song was a kids’ toy, it would be a Lite Brite). And just like that, Small Black is over.
And then, you turn it back on. Because as with all of the best pop, this EP is impossible to turn off; trust me, I’ve tried. The best stuff on Small Black is found on the thirteenth or fourteenth listens – it’s the way the percussion shifts just a little toward the end of “Lady,” as the vocals get higher, or hearing that fourth vocal layer get added at the end of “Bad Lover.” It’s a sleeper of an EP, sure, but in same way Iron & Wine’s Creek Drank the Crade was a sleeper. That is the beauty of bedroom pop: it is small enough in scope to hear every single minute detail, and still uncover little bits as time goes on. There are moments that are inescapable, and discovering them feels special and nuanced.
So what to do with their blog hype? Well, maybe I am just adding to the hype, and will come to turn on Small Black in a few months. But maybe, just maybe, this is Brooklyn’s only way of making a band run the gauntlet, our challenge to an artist when they release something people immediately like. Maybe the blogs eliminate the need for PR and advertising, but add the need to overcome hype. And maybe hype machine isn’t exactly the right term, and blog hype is more like a whirlwind; that if a band can breathe through it, and stand up after all the scrutiny, they earn longevity. Small Black is my bet for a band that can do that – and Small Black is most certainly a grade A debut.
by Max Sebela