Sweden’s Little Dragon are a band blessed with a distinct and immediately alluring style. Their rhythms are dry and metronomic; their synthesizers either provide a distant ambiance or seem to glow like neon lights that flicker in time with the beat. Frontwoman Yukimi Nagano’s phrasing touches on conventions of modern– particularly British– iterations of R&B, but errs on the side of aloof understatement. They are essentially an R&B band, but the major elements of their style are skewed enough that while the music seems vaguely familiar, it doesn’t sound quite like anyone else.
A lot of listeners had their first exposure to Nagano and Little Dragon last year when the group guest starred on two tracks from the Gorillaz’s excellent album Plastic Beach. Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn was very clever in his deployment of the band on those cuts, making the shift into a sequence in “Empire Ants” highlighting Nagano’s smoky, serene voice and Håkan Wirenstrand’s stunning keyboard textures seem like a sudden cut from muddy, dimly lit footage to vibrant, super-saturated color. If one of Albarn’s goals in collaborating with the band was to showcase their best qualities, he did an amazing job of it.
Ritual Union, the band’s third album, does not stray from the sexy, futuristic sound of their previous record, Machine Dreams, or their team-up with Albarn. If anything, they’ve doubled down on their aesthetic by leaning harder than ever on moody synths, nearly subliminal bass lines and impossibly crisp snare hits. A few of the songs, like the sleek title track and the brisk, funky “Nightlight”, rank among the group’s finest work. All through the record, Little Dragon are extremely effective in delivering the most attractive elements of their style, resulting in a set of songs that come across like the ideal soundtrack to a night on the town in some exotic sci-fi city.
The problem with Ritual Union is that even though every song on the album is built on the foundation of some very good musical ideas and at least one engaging hook, the material nevertheless seems rather under-written. “When I Go Out”, “Please Turn”, and “Crystalfilm” all get stuck in groovy ruts, while cuts like “Little Man”, “Summertearz”, and “Brush the Heat” seem like they are one extra hook, middle eight, rhythmic shift, or chord change away from becoming truly outstanding pieces of music. This doesn’t diminish the charm of the music, per se, but it can be very frustrating to hear songs right on the precipice of greatness. Little Dragon have clearly mastered their style on this album; hopefully next time around they will deliver more songs worthy of their sound. – Matthew Perpetua, July 26, 2011