SMALL BLACK - Limits of Desire - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

SMALL BLACK - Limits of Desire

by Rich Morris Rating:9 Release Date:2013-05-13

Brooklyn-based Small Black's debut album New Chain was the scrappy underdog of the chillwave scene, with a bedroom-production sound and tinny, hissing beats. But it showed great promise and, in the trippy, gloopy 'Photojournalist' and the New Order-worshipping 'Search Party', it had two of the best songs of 2010. From the opening kosmische/motorik rhythm of first track 'Free at Dawn', it's obvious that Limits of Desire boasts glossier production.


What it also has is a tighter focus when it comes to the songwriting. This is an album full of songs which deliver big hooks and sky-scraping choruses. In common with most chillwave bands, Small Black are as in thrall to the uncool 80s mega-hit as they are to left-field electronica and lo-fi indie. Thus 'Free at Dawn' evolves into a sort of blissed-out combination of A-ha and U2. It's an undeniably strong opener but likely to make any music fan who values their cool cred a bit squeamish.


Thankfully, second track 'Canoe' is the sound of a band thoroughly in charge of their own sound. It's a gorgeous mix of languid, summery vibes a la The Style Council's 'Long Hot Summer' with syrupy synth and an irresistibly funky rhythm. This winning streak continues with single 'No Stranger' and the tinkling 'Sophie', both of which sound like they could play happily over the closing credits of one of those 80s bubblegum rom-coms where the soundtrack was way better than the film itself.


Throughout the album, singer Josh Kolenik's breathy, perpetually yearning vocals are Small Black's major weapon. As plastic and brazen as the group's pop melodies might feel at times, his voice brings real soul to proceedings, something which can't be fake. Too many US indie bands at the moment have vocalists who favour a high-register which sounds like a sparrow with its nuts in a vice. Kolenik, though he tends to falsetto, has a timbre at once creamy and husky, summoning grit and sweet surrender in equal measure.


Over the course of the album, the music's samey-ness becomes apparent. Slower songs such as the title track tend to just wash over the listener in a pleasant blur. However, the screaming early house sounds of 'Only a Shadow' bring something fresh to the mix, and when Kolenik gives it the full Jimmy Somerville towards the end it provides one the album's strongest moments.


Overall, some may decide Limits of Desire is a little too uncool in its blatant devotion to 80s synth-pop and dance, especially since the chillwave wagon has firmly ridden off into the sunset. But there's no denying the strength of the melodies here, nor the love which has evidently gone into making this album sound so sumptuous, so luxuriant.


Plus, in Kolenik, Small Black have a genuinely gifted singer, capable of vividly bringing to life the romantic heart of these songs. Summer may be a damp squib, but Small Black will have you feeling like you've got the sun on your face and sand between your toes.

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