When North Carolina’s Small formed in the summer of 1991, not only was the quartet unaware that a massive amount of hype was about to descend on the Chapel Hill scene (Superchunk and its Merge label being magnets), it didn’t plan on duking it out, record-bin-wise, with several other similarly named combos: Rhode Island’s Small Factory, Canada’s Smalls and Oregon’s Small. The northwesterners’ threat of legal action prompted a rechristening to Small 23 for a time during the True Zero Hook period (advance tapes of Chin Music also bore the numerically augmented name), but the group reclaimed its original moniker and released its 1994 album as Small.
Small initially consisted of ex-Superchunk drummer Chuck Garrison (also of Pipe), bassist Matt Walter and singer/guitarists Mike Kenlan and Eric Bachmann. Walter financed the band’s debut 45 as well as a split single with Pipe, attracting the attention of Rockville, which issued Cakes. The EP betrays an obvious Dinosaur Jr/Superchunk influence, boasting a pair of solid vocalists and a twin-guitar, rev-it-up style of scruffy, melodic pop-punk — a credible document of an eager young group.
Bachmann left just prior to the EP’s release in order to commit full-time to his other project, Archers of Loaf; he was replaced by Dave Hollinghurst. By the fall of ’93, the group had released a 45 and True Zero Hook. That longplaying debut suffers somewhat from depthless production and unadventurous arrangements, with too many songs simply being displays of circular riffing and chorus-based singing. Still, when Small bears down here, it shines: “Makes Me High” is a wonderful, punkish update on the old Big Star pop formula, and the six-minute “Chopsocky” carefully strides up the dynamics staircase to a delirious, feedback-ridden, anthemic finale.
The quickie EP Free T-Shirts for Spain finds Small moving in leaner, less hurried directions. The destination, Chin Music, is a diverse, rewarding stew. Benefiting from a decent recording budget and the availability of numerous guitars and amps, the record’s adventurous nature includes T.Rex on a power pop binge (“Mona Skips Breakfast”), Who-ish cynical rock (“My Head Is Full of Chocolate”), Replacements-style edgy punk (“Toastmaster”), even a bit of geographical exoticism (the Eastern-tinged melodies of “The Scenic Route”).
Established as one of North Carolina’s leading young rock bands (along with Superchunk, Polvo and Archers of Loaf), Small made Silver Gleaming Death Machine. Going for a bigger, rawer feel that would accurately represent its live sound, Small relied on its proven weapons: yearning, no-angst dual vocal hooks with singalong choruses, spindly, melodic riffs grafted to meaty power chords and solid drumming in the style of Keith Moon. In a sense, this worked to the band’s disadvantage, as it sacrificed personality and identity for immediacy and impact. Still, the record isn’t exactly a step backwards. In the dynamic rush of “Do the Math,” the vocalist gets worked up to the point of hoarseness while the guitars perform two-note splits and flips.
Drummer Garrison’s (and for a spell, bassist Walter’s) role in Pipe diluted neither combo; in fact, Pipe earned a sort of legendary underdog status around Chapel Hill. A handful of 45s trickled out, followed by 6 Days Till Bellus, a thirteen-song/24-minute punkfest. Vital and exhilarating, it’s like a more hardcore Rocket From the Crypt, particularly in the desperate, pumice-scraped vocals and the precision fretboard uproar (the latter courtesy of former Bad Checks guitarist Cliff Mann). Highlights: “You’re Soaking in It,” which sounds like a cross between the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker,” and the dense, clanging “The Metal Bus.”
The thirteen-song/25-minute International Cement perfectly balances hardcore roar (“Recliner” and “Lo Boy” could have been recorded fifteen years ago) with dragstrip/garage-shock crunch — “Inhalacion de Cemento” has a cool Yardbirds raveup feel, and the swaggering cover of Billy Childish’s “Hatred, Ridicule and Contempt” is equally perfect for jukeboxes, teen dance parties and the airwaves. Throughout, the band remains tightly focused — raw as hell but with no frayed edges. Credit producer Mitch Easter for keeping a powerful formula intact.