23.10.2009, Words by Charlie Jones


Okay, so you are probably bored to the point of nausea hearing about fuzzed-out lo-fi bands and understandably so. Girls, The Trailer Trash Tracys and The Drums are just a few out of a flood of guitar-based bands releasing records that scan decades of influences laid down on some dusty old tapes. Add the synth fiddling found on recent EPs from Washed Out and No Age to the mix and you have the reinvention of the past but with eyes firmly on the future. Cue new boys on the scene, Brooklyn-based duo, Small Black (although, when they play live there are more like four or five) who, namesake aside, should not be likened to the rambunctious 80s hardcore band Big Black with the rude album title and cover art. So why should you care? Because, despite Small Black’s entrance into in a scene verging on saturation, their understated self-titled EP is actually very refreshing.

Though it may not sound as much like Kool and the Gang on a comedown as ‘Life of Leisure’, ‘Small Black’ shares a similar nostalgic fascination with 80s synth pop. Rolling in with the sort of beat that The Pet Shop Boys would be proud of, the supine arpeggio synths of Despicable Dogs (a track dispatched even deeper into wistful 80s territory when remixed by the man himself, Washed Out) is like a distorted advert jingle (it sounds really like that DJ Shadow tune used on that O2 advert). As the track unfolds, it gets deeper. No Age-style vocals are softened by soporific hints of Wake Me When It’s Over by Longwave, giving it immediate accessibility despite the buzzing backdrop and screech of static electricity. From the outset, it is clear that this EP is a bit more outward-looking than some of its peers. Rather than dwelling on the past, there is a real sense of today. Everything about it is saying that the sun is out, so experience it (“Do it without me” // “Do it when I am gone”). Bittersweet and love struck, it seems to suggest: Just carry on living no matter what.

What is also beautiful about this EP is that it playfully fingers pop music, teases the surface, and then rips off its outer layers to reveal some actual, full-blown substance. Bad Lover is a perfect example. When its offbeat drumming throws up remnants of Esser’s Work it Out, there is a feeling that it could all go horribly wrong. But instead of going nowhere over dreary and repetitive territory, it levitates, creeping along until blossoming into a stirring (really fucking emotional) explosion of choral melody – fully exposing Esser as the one-dimensional, talentless shite that he really is. It is a similar thing with Pleasant Experience. There are definite elements of the sycophantic crooning of Empire of the Sun’s We Are the People, but this time slightly dissonant organ chords and the echo of an accordion ensure that it doesn’t make you want to vomit. It is fanciful, sure, but there is something eerie about it – something more rooted within modern-day humanity and much less pretentious than, say, Empire of the Sun prancing around like a pair of futuristic pagans dressed as flamingos.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Small Black are yet to gain wide-reaching recognition. While Washed Out receives all the plaudits, a quick Google search will show how little these guys have been blogged – probably down to the fact that they are a new, relatively unknown band coming off the back of a pretty over-subscribed movement in indie music today – even still, this is masterful stuff. It’s an example of really smart pop music and, if a subsequent release presses the same buttons, it is only a matter of time until they get the recognition that they truly deserve. Bring on an album, I say. (8)

The Small Black EP is out now in the US. Despicable Dogs is due for UK release in December.

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