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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he first thing you notice about SMALL BLACK’s new album, Limits of Desire, is the cover artwork. Shot independently by Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland, it depicts a nude couple embracing at the top of a ladder, raised above a slightly barren Evergladian swampland and waiting alligators in the waters down below. One gator, by the base of the metal ladder, seems particularly interested. The humans are intertwined by their arms, but as the ladder stretches down to the danger beneath, their bodies become increasingly separated. To venture down to land, they have no choice but to let go of each other.
“We found the image about a year ago, before the record was finished,” says frontman Josh Hayden Kolenik yesterday by phone from Brooklyn, where Small Black are preparing for a 24-date North American tour that kicks off tonight at Brighton Music Hall. “It fit the title, and I thought it was a strong combination of text and image. We’re thinking it might have influenced some of the finishing touches on the record.”
That record, Limits of Desire, out this month of Jagjaguwar, plays on themes of passion, trust, connectivity, and interaction. It’s the band’s sophomore effort, following the shiny, blippy, plastique-pop of 2010’s New Chain, which featured breakout singles “Search Party” and “Photojournalist,” perhaps the final extension of Small Black’s origins as Kolenik’s solo bedroom-pop project. Here, he and the band have found a stride of greater grandeur, a more lush and textured approach to electronic-pop that welcomes contributions from all four members in the creative process.
“I felt New Chain is all about texture and real sonics colliding,” Kolenik adds. “This [record] is more about songwriting, in a way, where we could be lush but also way more simple. We tore back the elements.”
Album opener “Free At Dawn” is perhaps their most triumphant moment, a slick, pulsating wrestle with crescendo-pop that never thrusts itself over choral cliff, and serves as an awakening for the rest of the record. “Breathless” and “No Stranger” are pop songs for a night time beach party, never lacking in urgency but with a smart patience under each rhythm. The smooth synthpop of “Sophie” is destined to land on the opening or closing credits of a cable TV show by year’s end, and wouldn’t be out of place somewhere on a-Ha’s 1986 record Scoundrel Days.
After the New Chain tour ended, we spent a year experimenting and working on production technique, just to get where we are with Limits of Desire,” Kolenik says.
The result is a layered pop record that, unfortunately, do much to distance Small Black away from the “chillwave” tag of which they’re not quite fond.
I think it’s pretty goofy,” he says of the label. “I think we’re a pop band that writes pop songs; we’re more of a song-based band than a loop-based band. [Chillwave] is just a blanket, boring tag used to write songs off.”