In many ways, Just von Ahlefeld and Julius Steinhoff’s debut LP as Smallpeople feels like a culmination of the effort they’ve invested in their label the past few years. Which is strange, because Smallville, co-run with Peter “Lawrence” Kersten, has never been about its founders. Whether working together or apart, the duo’s releases on the Hamburg staple have arrived at just a steady trickle, leaving plenty of space for names like Christopher Rau, Moomin, Move D, and Benjamin Brunn to shine. But then again, Smallpeople, Smallville, what’s the difference? Without von Ahlefeld and Steinhoff, the label wouldn’t exist, nor enjoy its respected association with plush deep house. It therefore seems fitting that some five and a half years after pressing its first record, the label’s founders should step up and say, “You’ve heard plenty from the artists we like. Now it’s time for a big statement, directly from us.”
Of course, Smallpeople’s middlemen — and the duo’s own EPs for Laid and Underground Quality — have already given plenty of insight into the minds of von Ahlefeld and Steinhoff. As such, Salty Days is not an album of surprises, but rather one of assured comfort and quality, like that favorite liquor you’ve been buying for years. Tracks such as the soft-focus “And You And You” seem instantly familiar, for example. Does this also render them a tad routine? I’m not sure; the duo’s sharp arrangements tend to deflect such pesky thoughts. The track’s first half — a good three minutes or so — sees them fiddling incessantly with just a solitary piano chord, yet somehow keep things interesting. There’s a similar level of nuance in “Beauclair,” too. Even with good headphones, its low end is barely noticeable, luring listeners into pursuit as it winds through a forest of brusque drums and gaseous synths.
To varying degrees, all the tracks fit this description of “familiar but good”. The heavily weighted claps in “When It’s There,” for example, provide a lovely cadence for creeping organ and resonant bass to cling to. In “Black Ice,” there’s just the scantest trace of vocal, but it’s so well chosen, so insistent, that desolate bass and rushing hats are the only extras — a judicious structure Smallville has nailed before. Like much of Moomin’s work, “Say What You Want To Say” has just the right amount of dust, washed-out piano bouncing off slapping hand drums and jaunty synths. Perhaps the only real detour is “The Loon’s Groove,” a nature-infested jam which steps away from Smallville’s urban confines and into the wild, animal calls beckoning at every turn. Built on this kind of strength, Salty Days feels as vital to Smallville’s catalogue as the LPs before it, and marks a significant point in the label’s history. There’s just one thing I’m left wondering: where to next? Nice as the album is, it doesn’t sound as fresh as it might have four, or even two years ago. Hopefully, the duo have some ideas in reserve for the next one.