It’s a cliché to say that a band’s early work, when its music is in its roughest, rawest state, is best -- but in Small Black’s case, it’s true. The group’s self-titled EP fused longing, noise, and melody into a handful of exquisite lo-fi pop songs that fit into the chillwave trend, as well as a larger indie tradition of bedroom maestros insulating their heartbreak with homespun sounds. On New Chain, the band trades the static and hiss of cheap recording equipment for a much cleaner sound; the haze around Josh Kolenik's voice comes from dense electronic swirls instead of signal overload. Choosing better sound quality isn’t inherently a bad thing for Small Black, but too often the album feels like the flipside of their EP: Instead of strong songs presented in a crudely beautiful fashion, New Chain’s polished approach lets the songwriting and melodies fade into the background. Ironically, tracks like “Camouflage” somehow sound even older minus the lo-fi approach, with synth toms and pads that hark back to the pristine-bordering-on-sterile ‘80s. Elsewhere, the sheer amount of sound burying Kolenik’s vocals on “Hydra” prevents an emotional connection -- what was a cocoon on Small Black is a wall here. The band does break through this sonic barrier a few times. “Photojournalist”’s stop-start rhythms and “Panthers”’ emphasis on Kolenik’s voice add the emotion and momentum missing in too many of these songs. There are some purely sonic delights here as well: the warping and fizzing synths on “Goons” provide some lush electronic dream pop, and “Invisible Grid” closes the album with a luminous soundscape that evokes underwater wildlife. Indeed, New Chain is never less than pretty -- it’s just not all that engaging. Small Black haven’t quite mastered balancing their newfound polish with memorable songs, but New Chain’s sound is so appealing that it could be considered one of the first chillwave albums aimed at the mainstream.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares