What’s the difference between a band being classified as ‘underrated’ instead of ‘unrated’? If there is a distinction to be made then Smallgang surely serve as a perfect example. At the time of writing, the most listened to track on this London-based four piece’s MySpace has a grand total of 88 plays. To put that figure in context, the MySpace of Friendly Fires, whose Pala is the most chart-worthy album set to be unleashed on the same release date, have garnered 1,203,944 plays for ‘Jump In The Pool’ and it will still take a minor miracle for them to hit the number one spot.
That’s not to say that because Smallgang are of slight concern in indie/most realms that their second album Trespasses will naturally be of negligible quality. It is actually of ‘mostly average with one outstanding moment’ quality - but more on that later. What’s of greater concern is why they felt the need to blow their load on a forgettable LP when they hardly set the world alight last time around.
The Smallgang sound won’t be new to you. Take Joy Division’s angular fog of gloom, add the morosely euphoric storytelling of The National’s Matt Berninger with a splash of the anxiously resigned vocal style that both bands share and that’s it in a nutshell. ‘Lost In The Post’ is more trim than most other offerings, ‘Out Of Nothing’ more ecstatic but they all remain variations on a theme fertile enough to garner a few spins on BBC 6Music via Gideon Coe.
To elevate themselves beyond the occasional critics' choice pick however, Smallgang need some more songs in the vein of ‘Cockpit’. Taking the standpoint of a passenger airliner pilot on a terminal course to terra firma, lead singer Simon Kobayashi’s morbid narrative is matched by a initially fumbling guitar rhythm which escalates through the churning sentiment of abject horror as swathes of echoing feedback flood the track. The flutter of helplessness which washes through you as Kobayashi utters “I’m in the cockpit moving slow motion, I’m in the cockpit I can see the ocean” stands tall next to any comparable offering from their contemporaries.
Unfortunately the rest of Trespasses feels a lot like the work a band fumbling on the fringe of a magic formula with few 'By jove, we’ve got it' moments to show for it. ‘Wrong Side’ is too discordant to really convey whether its “It doesn’t get any better” message is one of irony or melancholy mistakenly laced with a chirpy twang. ‘Made In China’ is better, driven from its intro by a Dinosaur Jr-esque surge of energy but lacks the lyrical chops to convey its mantra of globalised worthlessness. ‘1532’ even toys with an art-rock outburst of cowbell and appropriately off-putting account of how Kobayashi enjoys dining on ornithological creatures yet when combined with a near six minute running time and its shrill blaze of an outro, it all hangs together rather awkwardly.
Trespasses could have worked relatively well as an EP containing some choice cuts and the promise of more to come. Smallgang could have been underrated and on the up after an anonymous debut. Instead they're going to have to make do with notes of 'must do better'. They could have done with remaining unrated for a while longer.
4Robert Leedham's Score