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Small Black - New Chain

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Artist: Small Black

Album: New Chain

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Oct. 25, 2010

If nothing else, Web 2.0 has framed loneliness in a whole new high-tech way. Once, years ago, alienation might have taken the form of staying home with your dog alone for a whole weekend, not showering and refusing to answer the phone. Now, it’s a matter of email boxes stuffed with only spam, weeks of no comments on your blog, the realization that being constantly in touch with everyone you know on Facebook is pretty much the same as not knowing anyone at all. You feel like you’re connected, but are constantly pulled short by the vapidness, the insubstantiality of what you get from that connection. Put Small Black — and perhaps the whole glo-wave phenomenon — against that backdrop and it starts to make sense. Here is electronically hooked-in loneliness set to drum machine beats, a restless, self-referential transmission that looks more far substantial than it is.

New Chain is Small Black’s first full-length album, following a widely touted EP, whose single “Despicable Dogs” got remixed by Washed Out. Like the rest of the hypnogogic crew, Small Black’s Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner splice the confessional intimacy of bedroom pop to sleek dance, hip hop and new wave arrangements. Technology provides access to an arsenal of commercially-viable sounds — Cure-like synths, echoing hip hop beats, choirs of celestial backup singers — yet at the core, these songs are intimate and inward-looking, even solipsistic. These are small compositions projected on a big screen. No wonder they turn blurry around the edges.

Consider, for example, “Search Party,” whose soft focus new waveries swirl around the most fundamental bass lines, whose snapped off upbeats reverberate in clean white space. The singing, a chant of “there’s nothing to keep / you search for what you need” is the only fuzzy, hand-crafted sound, muttered almost, just shy of letting you know exactly what’s being said. The combination of anesthetically-clean arrangements and lo-fi singing makes the tune resemble a home-made Tears for Fears, which is just as disturbing as it sounds. There’s a war on here (and on other tracks) between the internal-ness of the songs and the stylish, empty polish of their surrounding elements.

At a couple of intervals — “Crisp 100s” in particular — Small Black reminds me of Lotus Plaza in its radiant, glowing atmospheres. Yet, where Lotus Plaza blurs the particulars in pursuit of transcendence, Small Black seems indistinct without a payoff. Not surprisingly, the band’s best songs have the most definite vocal melodies. “Photojournalist,” the disc’s highlight, brings slow, whispered singing up to the front of the mix, floating over machine drums and high, bubbly synths. There’s an unexpected friction in the live-sounding drums banging away in the background, bringing a welcome bit of sweat and drive into the picture.

But mostly these songs seem slight and shy, unable, really, to support the massive facades of synth and disco drums that Small Black layers onto them. It’s like adding emoticons to an email message that you haven’t put much thought into…and no substitute for real empathy and soul.

By Jennifer Kelly

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