Rock bands with mixtapes: It’s almost too perfect of an idea, like rock bands with hypemen, and it’s amazing that it doesn’t happen more often. Actually, it pretty much never happens. Hypemen are rare, too, but there’s at least a historical precedent: Guys like the Happy Mondays’ Bez, Avail’s Beau Beau, and that one guy from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones made a case that bands could support a guy who just dances and doesn’t actually do anything otherwise. But mixtapes? I’m probably forgetting something, but up until now, the only rock band I can name with an honest-to-god rap-style mixtape is Fall Out Boy, whose 2008 Clinton Sparks collab Welcome To The New Administration mostly served as a way for Pete Wentz to show off his label Decaydance’s noxious roster. Brooklyn band Small Black aren’t exactly a rock band; they’re more a delicate synthpop act that served as bit players in the great chillwave saga of two years ago, touring as Washed Out’s backing band and such. But their new tape Moon Killer shows that indie bands can do mixtapes as well as almost anyone else, and that more probably should.
If Moon Killer were an album, with a label and a limited-edition vinyl release and a low-budget Instragram-looking video and stuff, it would work just fine and sell a couple of copies, but it couldn’t do everything Moon Killer does. Moon Killer works because it allows the group to branch out, to try a few new ideas, to make collaborative connections and sample big songs without having to pay outrageous sample fees. It doesn’t sound like a rap mixtape, but it accomplishes some of the same artistic goals, and it gives Small Black a chance to do things they couldn’t do on an album. Heems from Das Racist shows up to delivery sleepy-eyed guest verses on a couple of tracks. Star Slinger and Phonetag roll through to remix tracks from New Chain, the band’s 2010 debut album. One track, “Love’s Not Enough,” wraps samples of Nicki Minaj on “Your Love” and Drake on “I’m On One” in layers of gauze. The next, “All The Rainbows,” builds itself from a funky, breathy loop of Dusty Springfield’s evocative-as-fuck classic “Windmills Of Your Mind.” There are probably a few other samples I missed.
All this just gives the band a larger canvas to create its woozy, zoned-out synthpop, but those ideas wouldn’t amount to much if the music didn’t work. It does. Chillwave became a punchline the second someone coined the genre name, but its dizzy textures and its wave of keyboard gloss can still sound pretty amazing when they’re done right. Along with their old buddy Washed Out’s very nice 2011 album Within And Without, Moon Killer serves as a nice reminder that the sound can still be remarkably soothing, even if its cultural cachet evaporated almost immediately. The single best track on the tape is one of the few that does away entirely with mixtape-related gimmickry: “Clear Blue Skies,” which sounds like a Tears For Fears song heard through a post-Merriweather Post Pavilion prism. It’s simply a gorgeous track, and it’s not the only one here. Moon Killer is a full-length that works just fine on its own terms. The best mixtapes do that.
Download Moon Killer for free here.
Also, please note: DJ mixes are not mixtapes, even if people call them mixtapes. If someone jumps up in the comments section and points out a bunch of rock-band DJ mixes, I’m going to be annoyed.