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Album Review: Little Dragon – Ritual Union [Peacefrog]

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.

Buy “Ritual Union” from Amazon

Album Review: Gorillaz – The Fall [EMI]

Without a doubt, the hot gadget for 2010 was the iPad. Apple seems to have a monopoly lately on must-own items, and many a person will testify to the high quality and innovation the company consistently strives toward. Good for them, they’re probably doing more good than harm with their products, even if a tablet computer such as an iPad doesn’t have the processing power of your average laptop and has a tendency to break if you drop it from a countertop. Those things are inconsequential, because it’s cool, and the apps created for it allow you to do cool things. Case in point, whilst on tour in North America for 32 days this past fall, Damon Albarn wrote and composed 15 new Gorillaz songs using his iPad as the primary tool and musical instrument for the entire thing. It’s an impressive feat in and of itself, particularly because it sounds as good as a record made the traditional way, in a studio with industry standards such as ProTools or GarageBand. Released this past Christmas Day as a free download for fan club members ONLY (it only costs…$45 for a year’s subscription), “The Fall” is the official title of this iPad-made album. It may not boast the extensive list of guest stars and dramatic orchestral moments, but it remains a Gorillaz album through and through, with plenty of electro-pop style, found sound samples, and anchored by Albarn’s vocals.

Going purely by the song titles, you can tell that “The Fall” was a record composed on a journey across America. Over half the titles reference cities or states, and according to the album liner notes they were all recorded in those locations (see: “Shy-Town” in Chicago, “Amarillo” in Amarillo, etc). It’s not fair to say the actual music embodies the spirits of each city in which they were recorded, but that might be a product of how Damon Albarn views them anyways. If that’s the case, either the weather turning colder or perhaps road weariness may have affected Albarn’s mood as this isn’t the most upbeat Gorillaz record by any means. It’s often slow and lacks some of the pop edge that’s generated the cartoon band’s singles these past few years. The lack of any hip hop on this album is also an issue, though to be completely fair it’s not like you can get all your rap buddies to come out and record something with you as you tour around the country. In place of much of that are various natural sound samples that were recorded in locations around the country, from flipping around Texas radio stations to a forest and stream in Santa Fe to a loudspeaker announcement at an Los Angeles train station. Hell, the last track, “Seattle Yodel” is just a store-bought “yodeling pickle” (which you can buy online as well) held up to a microphone. At the very least these natural sounds make for something different outside of the iPad-crafted beats and the actual instruments that do pop up very infrequently. It’s definitely enough to leave you wondering whether you can call this even a legitimate Gorillaz album if Albarn is virtually the only person composing most of these songs.

While “The Fall” may have its issues, it may also be a little unfair to judge it harshly. First off, the method of distribution exclusively via the band’s fan club seems to suggest that this wasn’t intended to be heard by the masses or in the hope of spawning a radio hit. The only way non-fan club members can get their hands on this record is either by streaming it via the band’s website or pirating a copy. Secondly, writing and recording such an album over 32 days while in the middle of a tour that offers loads of distractions isn’t the way that 98% of bands operate, mostly out of fear what they come up with will be a crap product. Thirdly, to limit yourself and to base an entire record on what you can do with a bunch of iPad applications and a couple instruments is a challenge and a half in and of itself. The liner notes list all 20 iPad applications, along with the couple of actual instruments used to create everything you hear on “The Fall”, to the point where you could make this whole record over on your own should you be so inspired. That nobody has put out a legitimate iPad-recorded album prior to now really also shows how forward-thinking and brilliant Damon Albarn really is. While you were busy playing the latest edition of “Angry Birds” he was writing and composing music. Were he to allow himself more time and resources you can probably assume this record would have been a lot better and a lot more upbeat/fun. Eh, that’s probably the plan for the next, fully legitimate release from the band. So instead of being great “The Fall” is merely good, though better than might otherwise be expected. It’s not worth paying for a fan club membership just to own it, but if you really love Gorillaz and want to take advantage of more than just this exclusive music (a lithograph, webstore discount, ticket presales, streaming live videos, etc), perhaps the Sub Division is for you.

Join the Gorillaz fan club Sub Division and get a free download of “The Fall”

Stream “The Fall” at the official Gorillaz website

Live Friday: 6-18-10

So at this point the jig is up, right? When talking about Gorillaz, we’re more than fully aware that despite being represented by animated characters, there’s a full band of actual people behind them, right? I think that Daman Albarn, animator Jamie Hewlett and Co. are essentially done with presenting this project as an animated band in the sense that they used to do interviews in character rather than as themselves. Yes, the main entities of Murdoc, Noodle, 2D and Russel still exist when watching Gorillaz music videos or even in concert, but as far as promotional duties are concerned, I’ve seen more interviews with the actual people behind the cartoons than the actual cartoons themselves when it comes to the group’s latest (and best) album “Plastic Beach”. This is a stark change from the last two records, and it makes me happier to hear words coming out of Albarn’s mouth rather than a fictional character who may or may not be messing with us. That said, I’m very pleased with this week’s Live Friday, which features Gorillaz and also has a totally legitimate interview with Albarn and Hewlett about the project. What follows is an informative look into the band with the veil lifted, and many burning-ish questions are answered. But really, you may be more in this for the music. The band does 3 songs off “Plastic Beach”, all of which come off sounding much like their album versions. That tends to happen when you’ve got a lot of programmed beats, and all the work done by your guest stars has to be pre-recorded because they’re not out on tour with you. But Albarn does do his vocal stuff live, among other things, and there’s a live drummer, so if you’ve got no idea what Gorillaz sound like live (there’s an equally, if not more compelling visual component to their shows), this is a good indicator for you. And I can’t really remember the last time I heard Gorillaz do a radio session. All that said, this is a pretty great session of you like Gorillaz, and at the very least I suggest you download these songs.

Gorillaz, Live on WXPN 6-11-10:
Gorillaz – Stylo (Live on WXPN)
Gorillaz – On Melancholy Hill (Live on WXPN)
Gorillaz – Rhinestone Eyes (Live on WXPN)
Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood (Live on WXPN)

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “Plastic Beach” from Amazon

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