If you want to get technical, Swedish band Little Dragon has existed for 15 years now. That their recorded output has not matched that lengthy period of time is likely no fault of theirs. Call it a product of wasting away in the void of the millions of unsigned bands out there, they were signed to Peacefrog in 2007. After a self-titled record from that year and a sophmore effort “Machine Dreams” in 2009, interest in the band began to rise steadily. Still, they were viewed as almost a secret (at least in the U.S.) until they did a few high profile guest spots on a few different albums in the past couple years. Most notable among them is likely the two tracks featuring the band on the last Gorillaz album “Plastic Beach”. In fact, their work on the song “Empire Ants” impressed me so much that I named it my 22nd Favorite Song of 2010. It was primarily Yukimi Nagano’s smooth-as-silk voice that drew me in, and additional appearances on records by Dave Sitek (as Maximum Balloon) and SBTRKT only provided further evidence of Little Dragon’s worth. Suddenly the band has not only my attention, but the attention of millions more people than were aware of their last record. Striking while the iron is hot is important for any artist, which is why we’re now getting “Ritual Union”, Little Dragon’s third long player.
Having only heard Little Dragon from their guest work on other artists’ records, it’s interesting to hear what the band sounds like when the burden is fully on them. There is a reason why SBTRKT and Gorillaz were attracted to the band, and the way they handle beats and synths and other electronic elements provides that reason. They’re remarkably economical when it comes to putting together their compositions, ensuring that every instrument is utilized to its full potential without sounding overblown or understated. The sound is also remarkably smooth, and “Ritual Union” glides along on an almost futuristic track, which goes a long way towards helping to make the band’s sound relatively unique. All the elements are very familiar, it’s the way they’re put together that defies easy description. Anchored down by Nagano’s achingly beautiful vocals, there’s also an innate warmth that permeates these songs in spite of the rigidity a standardized beat structure can bring. All this without even mentioning that there are some pretty solid hooks via tracks like the title track, “Shuffle A Dream” and “Nightlight”. In fact, that opening title cut is very much the definition of what it means to start strong. One of the record’s biggest issues though is what happens after that.
There’s a certain high achieved at the very beginning of “Ritual Union”, both the album and the song, where right out the gate you’re left energized and impressed. The drop off is a steep one though, and when “Little Man” steps out next, it comes up, to turn a phrase, a little short. The song itself is likable, but it fails to fully grab you, as if there’s something slightly off about it. That pattern continues and bleeds into a handful of the album’s tracks, such as “Please Turn” and “Crystalfilm”, where you get the sense the band had the right idea and the right elements, they just were unsure precisely how to put it all together. Add to that some issues with the lyrics, in that they can tend to be on the bland or cliched side, and this record’s shiny exterior begins to lose much of its gloss. Throw in some darker and more depressing elements, and even the warmth contained in many of the songs also are pushing a stiff breeze behind them. Speaking in terms of progression, while I can’t speak for the band’s previous two records, I will say that much of this new material bears a lot of the same markings as their guest appearances with Gorillaz, Maximum Balloon and SBTRKT. At the very least they seem to know what works for them and are attempting to make this a continuation of those “featuring” roles that earned them so much acclaim and attention in the first place. It’s just a shame that when left solely to their own devices, they can never quite reach that high watermark. Perhaps if they’d brought in some guest stars of their own “Ritual Union” would have wound up with more peaks than it does valleys.