By Nathan Pavolko
Back in 2012, I was finally starting to explore the many venues and record shops in Phoenix. I was fairly new to Arizona and the indie scene. Through my curiosity of what Phoenix has to offer, I found a great record shop called Stinkweeds. I went straight to the 7-inch bin, as I always do, looking for a hidden gem. After searching awhile, I came across a Small Black single with a Best Coast cover song on it. I had no idea who they were and bought it purely based off the captivating sleeve cover. What I had heard was so different from any other electronic synth-heavy band, it instantly blew me away. Small Black had become my gateway into electronic music and a deeper dive into the wide range of indie music.
Over the years Small Black has gone through many subtle transformations, from their gritty lo-fi beginnings of the Small Black EP in 2009, to their soft polished crooning of the sophomore record Limits of Desire in 2013. Now releasing their third album, Best Blues on Jagjaguwar Records, the band continues to evolve at their own pace.
Best Blues is a bittersweet album specifically about loss and fleeting memories, inspired by many found photos (one of which seen on the album's cover) recovered from the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The storm left singer Josh Hayden Kolenik's family home flooded, destroying much of his family's memorabilia. In the aftermath, he found a mess of old photos and letters from his parents that he had never seen before. In his efforts to restore what was lost and piece together this story, using the warmth of a blow dryer and a fireplace, the mysterious photos came to life.
The music, much like the cover, is shrouded in a dream-like haze. Together, they create a ghostly atmosphere, embracing a gentle approach. In the opening track "Personal Best," a soft piano melody plays over a bristled synth, reminiscent of the bands early days. Small Black never disappoint with their incredibly diverse electronic sound. Using analog synthesizers, they stack layers of beautiful tones and textures similar to many shoegaze bands. In "No One Wants It to Happen to You," this is especially true, with one of the most prominent melodies on the album. The chorus gives way to a flexible bending synth and guitar combination.
Given the inspiration for Best Blues, many of the tracks have a deep sense of history. The lyrics often times share the complex emotions you only feel with your family. The standout single "Boys Life" captures, in one still frame, the heart and soul of the album. The aptly-named track not only shares the history of Kolenik's found photos, but is also a piece of the band's history. Based off a rediscovered demo found at the band’s cabin in upstate New York, the song is a slow burner, riding out a shimmering synth and relaxed dance beat. There is a soft touch to this song that is even applied to the chorus, never getting larger than the addition of a sliding guitar. However, the vocal hook is what truly carries the weight, Kolenik's breezy voice singing, "Pictures of youth // Picturing you;" easily one of my favorite lyrics of Best Blues.
The album’s emphasis on subtlety, however, becomes more of a hindrance as it progresses. The once big melodic hooks that I admired have taken one too many steps back, leaving many songs lost in translation. That being said, there are plenty of beautiful songs on Best Blues. Yet, as a whole, the tracks blend together too well, offering little variation from its hazy disposition.
Despite all of that, there is a yearning to change and expand. Listening to some of the later tracks, you get the sense the band wants to separate themselves from the past and move forward. The racing beat of "Back at Belle's" and the early morning rise of "Between Leos" offer insight on this change. I especially like the addition of trumpet (Darby Cicci of The Antlers) during "Between Leos;" it’s a new dynamic I was not expecting.
All of Small Black's albums thus far have been self-produced and recorded at the band’s home studio nicknamed 222. After a long year of recording, the band enlisted the help of mixer Nicholas Vernhes (The War On Drugs, Deerhunter) to put the final touches on Best Blues. Compared to their previous records, their third has a much cleaner production. The band sounds bigger than they ever have, yet I think they need to explore this new space. Best Blues may not be the band’s best, but it’s certainly a beautiful listen that should not be over looked.