Little Dragon play soul music in constant search of a soul. The most rewarding part of listening to them, and (more specifically) their latest, and third, LP Ritual Union, is watching them continually discover it in myriad ways. Ostensibly, this is dream pop from Sweden–which is hardly a development considered particularly noteworthy. Little Dragon, though, most effectively present such a vibrant context for their theatrics while creating a base atmosphere that is both sonically rich, and emotionally honest. The rapturous nature of Ritual Union speaks to this fact, and gives it a surprising identity.
Hailing from Gothenburg, Sweden, Little Dragon made plenty of waves in 2009 with the critically lauded Machine Dreams. Whether it’s the genuinely enchanting vocals of front woman Yukimi Nagano, or the loaded textures found in the group’s heavily programmed, but decidedly rock oriented backbone, the interest in the future of Little Dragon is, at the very least, gearing up to take them places. In the face of all this, however, Little Dragon are evidently mostly interested in making focused music that remains comforting, honest, and addictive in its pop sensibilities.
On Ritual Union, Nagano picks up directly where she left off, still possessing the kind of vocals that can be arresting in a completely abstract sort of way. Delicately winding and softly beautiful, she has the timbre of an R&B diva blended with equal parts trepidation and grace. Surrounding Nagano with a kinetic bed of sharp beats and carefully delivered simmering synth foundations, Ritual Union smartly looks to build upon Machine Dreams’ formula of layered ambiance, writhing melodies, and a deceptively relentless momentum.
Lead single “Nightlight” is a deliciously perfect mixture of alt soul and digital funk, using the driving nature of its ’80s aesthetic to push its quirky, off-key affectations to the point of sublimity. “Summertearz,” and its post-Timbaland production plays out on a small scale, but is elevated by the slow burn cohesion between Nagano and all of that starkly rhythmic repetition. “Please Turn” is brilliant in the way it calmly layers itself before becoming absolutely frantic in both its busy, 8-bit inspired keyboard melody, as well as the naked honesty in Nagano’s desperate chorus pleas.
Earlier on with “Little Man” and its bouncy earnestness, Nagano confesses that, “There’s something missing in your smile/ something missing in your soul.” Later, “Precious” is almost sinister in its initial presentation, but is more damaged in its honesty than anything else. Its dreamy interludes, leading into those electroclash tangents provide a welcome bit of inventiveness that help to remind that, while relatable at their best, Little Dragon are hardly conventional.
Ritual Union doesn’t so much present Nagano as the heart of Little Dragon–that would seem a tad too calculated for them. What it does do quite easily, however, is present Little Dragon as a band that possesses a conscious heart. A soul, even, that comes through with a crisp voice. That voice is, of course, delivered by Nagano, but it is uniform in its sentiment; unique to the group as a whole. It’s a slight distinction, but one that elevates Ritual Union, and Little Dragon to a sometimes surprising high level.