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"Free at Dawn," the opening song of Small Black's second full-length album, is the sound of a band reclaiming itself at the start of a new day.
Gone is much of what characterized the band's eponymous 2008 EP and 2010 debut album New Chain — the chill synths and preset Casio beats of a band that began as a bedroom project.
While still self-produced, Limits of Desire abandons the occasionally overstuffed sound of home-studio tinkering that guitarist-keyboardist Ryan Heyner and keyboardist-singer Josh Kolenik began with before adding bassist Juan Pieczanski and drummer Jeff Curtin. The full-band approach draws from an expanded palette, making Limits of Desire a surprisingly nimble album, synth-pop that fits itself into unexpected places.
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"We kind of stumbled onto a lo-fi sound for the EP, and that was fresh for all of us, so we latched onto it," Pieczanski says. "But as time went on, we wanted to move beyond that, make it more spacious. The more we played live, the more we realized we could take it to different places."
Living together in a Brooklyn house, the Small Black members take a layered approach to songwriting, adding and stripping elements until a song feels right, no matter how far it's deviated from the original inspiration.
"Josh will have a lyric and it will inspire us to start laying down some parts, [and] we'll end up doing sometimes 10 versions of the song," Pieczanski says, "adjusting the lyrics and the musical structures. [And] sometimes we start from scratch. We have a weird process that sometimes works backwards, but we ping-pong back and forth between lyrics and music.
"We definitely have a kind of assembly line. We each have different skills. Our drummer is really good at mixing, because he does a lot of that on the side, so he gives a great polish to everything afterwards. Everybody has a say and puts their stamp on it, but as a group we decide whether each individual thing works."
The band also works visually, deciding on album art very early in the process and working with that imagery in mind to shape the theme and direction of the record. The Limits of Desire cover (by Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland) features a naked man and woman who've climbed opposite sides of a ladder to embrace each other at the top while alligators prowl below.
"We like to collaborate with visual artists," Pieczanski says, "and it definitely helps to match and connect with the music. It helps us feel like it's something real. Once we found the album cover, that locked in the title, and that definitely helped shape the last part of the process. We definitely wanted to leave it up to interpretation, but there's something about the two people trying to reach the top of the ladder. It's the hardest way for them to connect. It's dangerous and they're really going out of their way."
In the context of the cover image and title, the album becomes an exploration of personal freedom and failings. In its songs, from "Free at Dawn" to the dynamic closer, "Outskirts," you can feel connections being strained for, made, and then broken again. And as Small Black grows increasingly grounded musically, the band's latest album makes for a more visceral listening experience.
"It translates to live a lot better than some of our older material," Pieczanski says. "We're really excited about the live show. It's the culmination of all the work we put in. That's really the biggest payoff for us, is being able to play this stuff out. At the heart of it, we're all just musicians, and we just like to play."