So here's something fun to try.
If you've never heard the sublime Small Black before, do a little trawl through the blogs and have a look at a collective opinion curiously divided for a band still in its infancy. With a sharp line between them, you'll find camps stumbling over themselves trying to find a way to describe them versus camps already writing them off as just another strain of chillwave, an erstwhile flavour of the week that seems to have already soured for most.
And sure, their 2009 nothing-should-be-added-nothing-should-be-taken-away breakthrough single, Despicable Dogs, could nestle alongside tracks by Neon Indian, Memory Tapes or Washed Out (who Small Black shared a 2009 tour with), but it would be an uncomfortable fit because it is clearly finer than most of what those bands offer.
Even the name chillwave whips up a cold detachment, and the bands mentioned above do it beautifully. But with songs like Despicable Dogs boasting lovingly layered synths and the murky, close to the ear vocals of Josh Kolenik, Small Black gave early notice they were onto something different.
So what gives with the chillwave?
"Using genres helps it to make more sense, it's understandable that you need a story or a talking point," says Kolenik on the line from a stop in Los Angeles. "But I think the music we do is pretty different than the bands we get compared to, and I like a lot of those bands and I'm flattered to get those comparisons. But I think what we do wears a lot of hats and fits under a lot of different banners."
Anybody who saw the band on their 2009 tour with Washed Out would have recognized an immediate difference from the bedroom pop of the Small Black EP released by Kolenik and Ryan Heyner, since it was fleshed out by a new rhythm section -- check out the studio version of standout Weird Machines vs. this live version. The expansion also had a major impact on their recently released debut full-length, New Chain.
"Playing live with the full band, we wanted to make the beats bigger and push the speakers more than on the record, which was a response to hearing those cruddy Casio beats played live" Kolenik says. "As a musician, whenever you turn in a new record, it's like 'Alright, hate this, now on to the next thing.' You spend so much time with it, so New Chain seemed like the next logical step."
And here's what the next logical step was. Sacrificing some of the warmth delivered by the EP’s cruddy Casio beats in favour of a wider range of sounds. Kicking off with the gently layered Camouflage before rolling into the 80s-saturated guaranteed concert hit, Search Party. But the starkest difference lurks in more subtle jams like album highlight Light Curse, that take more advantage of space while keeping the band’s headphone candy flavour.
"As a new band, you're still figuring how you work, so a lot of that is just throwing every idea down and see what works," Kolenik says. "And space is just as powerful as a bunch of sounds. Having done a bunch of maximalist, dense sounds was awesome, but you always want to do the opposite of what you've done before. But really, Ryan and I's friendship is based on a love of lush, reverb-soaked music, and it's hard to move away from what you love.
“We also wanted to push the vocals up a little in the mix,” he adds. “The first stuff was really dirty and to have the vocals be stronger would clean it up a bit. We really wanted to have it sound more crunchy. Even though my dad would be like, ‘Son. You should have the vocals right up front.’”
And according to Kolenik, new songs the band already have in the can from when they were writing New Chain step into yet another direction, one that’s promised to be a little darker, a little more dance. And whether all this is the result of a new band still growing creatively, or perhaps the result of swagger culled from a warm early reception doesn’t really matter. Just like the genre doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Small Black is a band worth paying attention to.