Small Black, ‘Limits of Desire’ – Album Review
With their tightly woven 2009 self-titled EP, Brooklyn’s Small Black rode in with a wave of hazy synth nostalgia-ists like Washed Out, Neon Indian and Memory Tapes. They followed it up a year later with a full-length called 'New Chain. The album made it clear that they were more leaders than followers in the then-booming field of bedroom-pop pioneers. There was an edge to their lyrics and a depth of emotion in their sound that made all those slinky hooks stick. Now, with even the echo of that initial boom behind us and the stigma surrounding the scene still lingering, where does Small Black go?
To date, the most meaningful thing Small Black has put out might not even be an official release, but rather a 2011 freebie called 'Moon Killer Mixtape.' The collection was a surprisingly vivid and vital-feeling portrayal of contemporary New York City and the youthful creative energy unique to the city. It featured Das Racist MC Heems on a couple tracks just to seal the deal, and it transcended any notion of “bedroom” or scene, which is what this kind of music has to do at this point to work. The mixtape format gave Small Black the freedom to realize something personal and affecting that they hadn’t quite attained with their records. And it sounded effortless.
'Limits of Desire' finds Small Black going bigger and bolder. Opener 'Free At Dawn' is almost U2-level widescreen with its airy arpeggios, motorik rhythm and arms-stretched-wide chorus, and it crescendos perfectly with some jagged guitar plucks and a wordless falsetto. The whole album follows a similar formula, reaching for the upper atmosphere with cloudy new age-y sonics and production, and it's tugged along by all of Small Black’s strong suits: hooks for miles, gooey synth arrangements, comfy vocals. 'Breathless' is another standout, with its acrobatic energy, staccato synth progression and undeniably catchy delivery of the titular word: "breath-less."
The whole album is functional and exceedingly listenable (this band is nothing if not consistent), especially if you’re already on board with whatever these guys are doing, but it never quite reaches beyond that. There’s a vague romantic conceit, illustrated by the record’s grin-worthy (yet strangely fascinating and pointed) cover art, that works well with this kind of music, but it doesn’t seem to amount to much beyond those ethereal day-glo feelings stretched across every song. It’s only a bummer when held up next to 'Moon Killer Mixtape' and the real joy, inclusion and sense of place that that release exuded.
The critical mantra most folks seem to level at Small Black and their ilk is “evolve.” It’s kind of vague when you consider you can find synths, guitars, drum machines and '80s influences in a helluva lot of music in 2013. It might be safe to assume it’s not a surface issue but a matter of what it all adds up to.