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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.

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Album Review: SBTRKT – SBTRKT [Young Turks]

Let’s get the clarifications out of the way right from the start: when talking about SBTRKT, feel free to pronounce it “subtract”. This isn’t MGMT, where they get upset if you call them “management”. Of course saying each individual letter S-B-T-R-K-T can be a bit stressful to the tongue versus how much easier the 4 letters of M-G-M-T are to rattle off. So save some breath and just keep it simple. That could also very well be the unofficial motto of SBTRKT’s self-titled debut. Calling it easy on the ears is accurate, but by no means should that indicate that the music is dumbed down or skewed purposely towards picking up as many new fans as possible. Downbeat electro minimalism is the name of the game, and unlike his similar counterparts in a James Blake or Jamie Woon, SBTRKT isn’t trying to make his music glitchy or tough to follow. Compelling and expertly crafted seems to be good enough for him, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.

You should know that SBTRKT is less of a musician and more of a producer. He’s helped out a number of artists and done plenty of remixes, to the point where he’s known much more for that stuff than any original material he’s put together himself. In creating his own songs, most everything is electro-heavy without much in the way of actual live instrumentation. There are vocals on most of his songs, but they’re never his own. Guests on his debut album include Sampha, Little Dragon and Roses Gabor, among others, all contributing their voices to songs that are tight and engaging while holding onto a grand sense of modesty. The couple instrumentals definitely hold their own, but SBTRKT is smart in spacing them out across the album to avoid running into too many quiet, vocal-less passages. Additionally, the emphasis placed on the song itself rather than a particular beat or other element gives each track an earnest and more pop-driven appeal than a lot of the other music coming out of this particular subgenre.

While the first couple tracks on the album are by no means bad, it’s not until “Wildfire” hits that things really start to take hold. Little Dragon’s super smooth vocals are a big part of what makes it work so well, very much akin to her guest spot on the song “Empire Ants” from last year’s Gorillaz record “Plastic Beach”. Sampha does the wealth of singing on the album, guesting on about half the tracks. His voice has a distinct quality to it that works well in an R&B sort of way, and thankfully SBTRKT provides him with the necessary backing elements to pull off a solid assist. “Trials of the Past” is his biggest moment on the album, though “Something Goes Right” is pretty accurately titled as well. Roses Gabor’s turn on “Pharoahs” makes for a later highlight too. What surprising is how remarkably solid the entire album feels. For something that’s got a mixture of guest appearances, it could easily have fallen into territory like UNKLE, where the list of contributing artists can make or break it. Whether it’s one or three or ten, SBTRKT is smart enough to have the guests play to his strengths rather than the other way around.

Putting it bluntly, SBTRKT is for the crowds that have wanted to get into the more downtempo, quieter side of electronica but have had a tough time doing so because other artists have made it difficult to do so. They’re simply flexing their creative muscles to their maximum, and interesting though it may be, commercially appealing it is not. SBTRKT may not have any full-on club hits via his self-titled debut, but at the very least this is a wholly listenable and remarkably interesting set of songs. Experimental may not be the operative word that comes into play, but when you know how to put together a strong set of songs, the innovative side isn’t necessarily the most important one. Not knowing much about what a SBTRKT record might sound like considering his pedigree and initial EP, this record is a pleasant surprise. If he’s able to continue to put together albums this good, keep an eye and an ear out – SBTRKT is one to watch.

SBTRKT – Wildfire

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