Each step forward is matched with baffling choices that threaten to derail the entire project.
You expect a grab-bag album to be inconsistent; maybe half of the album sticks in the back of your mind while the rest fades into nothing. But what happens when that unbalanced nature manifests in individual songs? The usually excellent Swedish quartet Little Dragon faces that problem on its latest album. High Season has some of its silkiest grooves and finest vocals, but each step forward is matched with baffling choices that threaten to derail the entire project.
Gothenburg, Sweden, doesn’t seem to be an obvious breeding ground for high-minded pop music. But two of the strangest and most indulgent artists of recent memory burst out of Sweden’s second largest city. After electro-wizards The Knife came Little Dragon, who has made music since the late ‘00s.
Its push into mainstream consciousness came through guest spots from lead singer Yukimi Nagano. SBTRTK and Gorillaz used her enchanting pipes to perfect effect, and as a result more listeners were drawn into the quartet’s upside down R&B world. The band’s last album was the criminally underappreciated Nabuma Rubberband, a fantastic slice of trip-hop mixed with euro-pop that was the sleekest release of 2014. Strange then that Little Dragon follow it up with something as off-kilter as Season High. You can’t even chalk up its lack of balance to experimentation; the album is simply in constant conflict between dancefloor brilliance and groan-worthy electronic sounds.
The icy keyboard opening of “Should I” sounds like a grand background for Nagano’s seductive groove, but it’s thrown off track by washboard percussion and a bass line passed through a 16-bit filter. A similarly Craiglist-priced bass offsets the danceability of “Strobe Light” and the pulsing, nearly head-stomping beat on “Push” is bombarded by dissonant elements that devolve into something merely annoying. Even the frenetic and bubbly synth on “The Pop Life” is offset by an oddly airy and underwhelming performance from Nagano.
Over the course of an entire album, the musical stalemate is infuriating. Only two songs really get out of the mud. “Butterflies” rises above simply due to ambition. Clocking in at over six minutes, it’s a slow, slow burner even by Little Dragon standards. There’s a bit of Vangelis in its DNA, and it might hint at more progressive electronic sounds for the quartet, an exciting prospect. Lead single “High,” meanwhile, is more standard Little Dragon fare, impossibly sleek, sexy and well-produced. It’s versatile too–thanks to the relaxed BPM, it’s appropriate for use at the club, while romancing or simply reading a book at home.
But these are the exceptions to the rule. Get the stems of Season High and with some minor tweaking you’ve got another hit in Little Dragon’s catalog. Unfortunately, the band’s impulse to add unnecessary needless layers got in the way of making a coherent, smooth record. For an R&B album, no matter how strange, that’s a death sentence.