Out of all the bands labeled as “chillwave,” Small Black’s inclusion in the subgenre always seemed more like the product of journalistic convenience than similarity. The stylistic commonality between the likes of Neon Indian, Toro y Moi and Washed Out seem strong enough to merit grouping, but Small Black is guiltier of a very hazy, shimmery pop that’s less obviously danceable and less sample driven than the work of those other acts. It would seem more accurate to describe Small Black as a bunch of dudes who makes pop jams with a decidedly chill bent to them.
What’s really pushed Small Black’s work to the fore, though, hasn’t been the strength of the band’s aesthetic choices but the strong hooks in their singles before New Chain, the group’s first full-length. Early tracks “Despicable Dogs” and “Kings of Animals” are simple verse-chorus jewels pleasantly clouded by canned percussion and slightly atonal electronics. New Chain has a few songs — “Camouflage” and “Photojournalist” spring to mind — that match the energy and obvious appeal of the work that saw release before it. But even with a relatively short 10-song track length, New Chain needs more than a few like those to buoy the album to the heights expected by earlier admirers of the group.
As a format, the full-length album has the power both to elevate and downgrade individual tracks, but it’s the sonics of a work, overall, that keep the listener’s interest. Starting with “Crisp 100s,” New Chain’s feel as a full movement starts to lag; however, but it’s not that the song on the bottom portion of the album are “bad.” In fact, the title track and “Panthers” are actually pretty good, but they, along with a couple of others, fall victim to the album’s awkward pacing that places the record’s upbeat material in a solid block that precedes its calmer moments.
If we’re really being considerate about the first stuff that Small Black put out and the material on New Chain, it’s fair to assume that Small Black could put out an immensely enjoyable record some day. So much of the difference between putting out a decent album and putting out a great one is in the fine touch; it’s the ability to see all of the tiny adjustments and arrangements that enhance the appeal of any given song. Listening to New Chain, there’s no reason now to think that Small Black can’t put that fine touch to making an album with a tight balance between their drowsier sensibilities and their hookier, head-nodding ones.