Little Dragon have that sleek sound that we’ve come to expect from Swedish artists of the various electronic sub genres. From Robyn (QRO photos) and Fever Ray to Miike Snow (QRO live review) and Lo-Fi Fnk, Sweden has long punched above its weight when it comes to output of tasteful electro/IDM groups. Drawing on this rich recent musical history, Little Dragon recall the work of Koop, the Scandinavian nu-Jazz duo who have been innovating since their 1997 debut. In fact, Little Dragon’s Swedish-Japanese vocalist Yukimi Nagano has been featured on two Koop releases in 2002 and 2006, cementing the link between the jazziest of Swedish down-tempo groups.
This is how Little Dragon must be understood, as part of a tradition, one that has strong roots in their homeland, but also crosses borders and eras, including the work of Air (QRO album review) in France, Stereolab and Sneaker Pimps in London, and Boards of Canada in Scotland. Ritual Union finds the group pushing further into the territory that these already legendary groups occupy by dropping some of the live instruments of their self-titled sophomore album in favor of increasingly digital sounds. Here Little Dragon can be understood as inhabiting the zeitgeist of nu-jazz/down-tempo, taking familiar tropes and updating them with modern production techniques and high quality digital recordings. The result is eminently pleasing, indeed there is almost nothing disagreeable about the album, begging the question, when does perfection become banal? When does pop loose its zing?
While not as brooding as parts of Little Dragon, especially the single “Twice” (the placement of which on Grey’s Anatomy has done as much as anything for raising the groups profile), Ritual Union at once makes the two-pronged argument that A) when you’re the vanguard, there’s no looking back and B) the way out is through. The album opener and lead single, “Ritual Union”, which was released ahead of the LP as a four-track EP with two remixes and an a cappella version, brings Nagano’s most impassioned vocal performance of the record along with the most memorable lyrics and vivid imagery – perhaps the best song about marital ambivalence since Billy Idol set pen to paper. “Little Man” then waltzes out big floppy (forgettable) bass synths that are at the same time one of the strongest differences between this album and their previous one. This balance between cutting edge and retro recalls the Metronomy’s (QRO live review) first album, the pad on “Shuffle a Dream”, being identical to the one used on the English group’s 2009 single “On Dancefloors”. However, while Metronomy can at times slide into affected and strained songwriting tactics, Little Dragon succeeds by culling all these little synth-funk moments into compelling and complete songs.
Ritual Union is never more retro than during the eight-bit shuffle that is “Please Turn”, which even has a hint of Swedish House Mafia’s über-hit “One” lurking in the synth tones and slow building arpeggios. The album then takes a chill turn with the sultry breather, “Crystalfilm”, where Nagano’s slinky stylings – an ethereal voice with just a hint of Joan Jett (QRO photos) for texture – carry the day. It is on this type of Little Dragon song, a formula that is repeated on “Precious” and “Brush the Heat”, where the Sneaker Pimps influence comes into conversation with the historical jazz idiom, where the singer introduces the track, breaks away and leaves the length of the song to the musicians, only to return for a chorus and perhaps some acrobatic note bending.
In the end though, this album will be remembered less for the songs than for the sounds, and whether this is a step forward or back from their last album is an open question. Some of the songs on Ritual Union exist only for a vibe manufactured at the intersection of tone and groove, “Summertearz” being the most throwaway example. Elsewhere, Little Dragon manages to transcend the constraints of the disposable electro-genre with the six-minute “When I Go Out”, which combines something like Hope Sandoval (QRO album review) vocals on a Chemical Brothers (QRO album review) track with enough polyrhythmic percussion to justify the song’s length. The result is that one gets lost in the song. Perhaps this is the threshold for successful music, when the internal monologue shuts off, and there is no longer any need for critique.