Sometimes, how a bit of music sounds in snippets does not translate into a full album. When Mrs. Blahg played a few such snippets of Small Black‘s sophomore album, Limits of Desire, I didn’t hesitate to download the whole thing… I loved the immediate 80’s feel of the two songs I heard and, thanks to the few glasses of wine I had already imbibed, found myself swooning.
Once I gave the whole album a good listen, I realized that there are about three or four songs I enjoyed… the rest, not so much. I have since given the album a good thorough listen quite a few times, and each time I end up having the same reaction… the first three songs grab me, the rest… snooze. In fact, I tend to forget I’m even listening to anything at that point and no matter how hard I try, it just loses me.
The three opening tracks; Free at Dawn, their first single of the album, Canoe, and No Stranger, stand out in a sea of meh. They are catchy, hooky, and reminiscent of much of what I adored in the 80’s… whether it be Joshua Tree-era U2, New Order, or OMD… Small Black is obviously well versed in their musical past.
The specific musical past I’m thinking of is the New Romantic phase in the early 80’s… and if it wasn’t for my young age at the time, I would have considered myself an adherent (not that I didn’t try… but a 12 year old trying to emulate Simon LeBon or Bryan Ferry was a bit funny). I hear shades of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Roxy Music (post Eno), and Pet Shop Boys sprinkled throughout… but the singer rarely alters his pitch or emotion enough to genuinely grab the listener.
Hailing from Brooklyn (of course), this quartet released their first album, New Chain, in 2010 and is considered part of the chillwave movement. Previous to this release, their single Despicable Dogs attracted some attention, and is on the soundtrack to Project X (it’s the song playing when Thomas was finally getting lucky with Alexis… I love that craptacular movie). Other than this basic information, I know nothing about Small Black… and unfortunately, I don’t imagine I will know much more about them after Limits of Desire.
I can’t say that it’s a bad album… it could certainly be in the background and not be offensive or off putting for anyone… but outside of those three opening tracks, which I do like, it does very little for me. The worst offence is simply that it’s a bit dull. For as lush as their sound is, and it is very rich and full, each track seems to begin well, yet never goes anywhere. The singer, Josh Kolenik, has a great voice but never seems to push himself very far out of his comfort range… which happens to be very narrow. I prefer some dynamism in my music, and for as many layers and beats that they produce, their sound is remarkably static.
Would I recommend Limits of Desire? Not really… but if you wanted a few singles, I would certainly take a look at Free at Dawn and No Stranger. Those are two standouts in an otherwise blase and unremarkable addition to the nu-makeout genre… but if I had a choice, I would go with Rhye or Morcheeba for some mellow 80’s style relaxation. Or hell, just pick The Postal Service… if you want pseudo-80’s music, go with the best… or pull out some Roxy Music and go with the originals.
Cool album cover though…
My desire for Small Black has it’s limits,
Cornelius J. Blahg