When Brooklyn four-piece Small Black released their self-titled EP in April, it felt like unearthing a dusty cassette of strange Casio pop songs recorded in some indistinct parallel universe. So now, just six months on, the resplendent glossiness of debut full-length New Chain feels like a quantum leap in their development. But even with the band sacrificing a measure of their EP’s peculiar charm by becoming fully-fledged exponents of the subgenre du jour – chillwave – New Chain still reveals them to be a rather special proposition.
The dissemination of woozy album taster ‘Photojournalist’ rightly met with cyberspace approval this summer, but so good is the rest of the album, the track actually turns out to be one of New Chain's weakest links. The record begins with the stunning ‘Camouflage’ – its heady intro is all that’s required to transport you back to any number of half-forgotten mid-Eighties teen movies, although surely none of them managed to sound quite this good. More than a mere exercise in nostalgia, this is indulgence in the sheer aesthetic pleasure and transcendent potential of sound, with the chunky drum machine and waves of synth effecting a gorgeous, disorienting meeting of the immediate present with the past’s vision of a future which never came. “Who are you? Where are you?”, plead the echoes of frontman Josh Kolenik – and rarely have abandonment and disconnection sounded so seductive.
And this is just the first element of New Chain’s exceptional opening salvo. The glittering ‘Search Party’ serves as a brighter, more direct response to ‘Camouflage’, while still advocating the eminence of obscurity over clarity, before ‘Hydra’ changes down the pace. At first it seems like an underwhelming misstep, but as the track builds, it’s thoroughly vindicated, turning into something hypnotically, tribally persuasive.
The album’s other big highlight comes later, in the shape of ‘Goons’, a song which somehow manages to combine the band’s undeniable slacker air with lashings of personality and joie de vivre. By this point you’re obliged to consider whether, despite the dividends that New Chain pays out by the bucket load, this is at heart an album of aesthetically-pleasing mood music. After all, it offers nothing to really rival ‘Bad Lover’ or ‘Despicable Dogs’ from the self-titled EP – tracks which, although scuffed around the edges, were still glorious, winning pop songs. The best the album can offer in the way of crafted songwriting is the downbeat ‘Light Curse’, which as it happens is incredibly pretty and tender.
For Small Black to have eschewed the curiousness of their self-titled EP in favour of a zeitgeisty full-length six months later, and still make a great success of it, speaks volumes for their talent and potential. If it’s quality songwriting you’re after, you’ve probably come to the wrong place this time, but what New Chain does offer is a 35-minute celebration of the spirituality of sound, bursting with life and soul, as thrilling as it is giddying.
7Dan Cooper-Gavin's Score