Little Dragon has a big pedigree. Friends of Gorillaz, collaborating with Rafael Saadiq, produced by Big Boi and now releasing their third album, the band is trying to enter the greater collective consciousness. For all of their successful networking, they may turn out to be their own biggest obstacle as they attempt to break into the mainstream.
On their latest release, Ritual Union, the Swedes prove diligent students of electronica and ’80s pop music, from their bouncing beats to the woozy synths that are so in right now. Fortunately, in this case, the dreamsounds don’t bury the vocalist. Singer Yukimi Nagano coos clearly and soulfully, her beguiling voice capable of leading you down abandoned hallways in an empty house. Though her in-studio rages allegedly gave the band its name, Nagano’s demeanor is eternally cool. One might even call it understated. Without seeing a photo, I imagine her dwelling behind long bangs and sunglasses, keeping others at arm’s length. She settles into a comfortable range and volume throughout the eleven tracks, but almost never pushes, as though she fears losing her composure and thereby not looking cool.
Indeed, excess is not in the band’s repertoire. Each song is downright mild, a pleasant toe-tapper just hip enough to appeal to a casual demographic but not inane enough to offend the snobbish listener. It would make for great background music while shopping at Urban Outfitters, because the elements are all perfectly good: excellent voice, interesting beats, fine sense of melody. Lead single “Nightlight” kicks off like the dream sequence in a video game and “Please Turn” would turn a Blondie fan’s head. The title track itself presents a delectable hook centralized on the words “ritual union.” Yet the album can be frustrating; though holding all the right parts, Little Dragon only occasionally assemble them into something memorable.
In other words, their greatest downfall is their reluctance to shuck the casual ear, to make a bold assertion of identity. After eleven songs, we know that Little Dragon can write a hook or produce a passable dance track. But aside from their geographic origins, we don’t know what distinguishes them from hundreds of other bands with a drum machine and a smooth singer. “Shuffle a Dream” lifts its synths straight from the cheesiest ’80s hits. Despite the ominous crescendos that lead it off, “When I Go Out” is flat and emotionless. If you sucked all the fun out of a Dirty Projectors’ song, it would be “Little Man.”
The album was released in the middle of a season notable for sterile, boring songs trying to pass for summer jams (“Pumped Up Kicks,” anyone?). Compared to the competition, Little Dragon certainly has the chops and the grit to land on more than a few playlists. As they forge a more distinctive identity on future releases, they will likely earn their spot fully within the niche of respected but edgy alternative electronic musicians, as led by Damon Albarn and his ilk. With the right PR and maybe a little help from their friends, they have the potential to make great music or at least to contribute great things to others’ songs.
by Katie Bolton