Lest you believe Little Dragon lack an aesthetic spine, their shift away from low-key left-field hip-hop, plaintive piano ballads, and acoustic jazz -- a combination that helped make their debut a cult classic -- seems more natural after a couple spins. There's no way around the fact that most of Machine Dreams is icy electro-pop, but it is not as if the truly singular Yukimi Nagano, an enamoring vocalist, has switched to drone mode, forsaking her grounding in R&B. She has kind of perked up, in fact, with her hooks carrying more lift to suit her band's rubbery rhythms and liquid synthesizer patterns.
Throughout much of the past decade, dance-oriented electronic-leaning pop music has erred on the side of stark utility, reducing beats and hooks down to an elemental thud and grind. What tends to get lost in this sparsely arranged music, particularly when we're dealing with lesser artists and total hacks, is color and atmosphere. Without these things, songs can feel incredibly clinical and soulless-- throbbing grooves almost completely devoid of context.
Like the ephemeral phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis, electro-pop group Little Dragon have risen to prominence with shimmering colorfulness. Led by the rich voice, at once sensuous and pure, of Yukimi Nagano, and propelled by effervescent twee synths, the band sounds like a more soulful and less brooding torchbearer for New Wave, similar in some ways to contemporaries Au Revoir Simone. This might seem strange in light of their Gothenburg, Sweden roots, a place better known musically for its melodic metal than fuzzy pop compositions, but Little Dragon collectively bring a very un-Scandinavian brand of warmth to the fore with seasoned aplomb all the same.
Yukimi Nagano is like Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O thawing in the permafrost. At her best, this Japanese-American pixie collapses into an animalistic dance ritual while emitting a sound that is at once shrill and frayed around the edges. This uniqueness is but one element that elevates Little Dragon above the myriad other guitar-less groups spun by a childlike fascination with the synthesiser.
In a year where La Roux and Little Boots have done their darndest to turn electro-pop into a dirty phrase, Little Dragon offer something that little bit different with second album Machine Dreams. Yes, the influences are obvious. Jarring Eighties synths, sultry R&B vocals, groove-laden rhythm section – a la mode is the phrase that comes to mind. It’s no wonder names like Prince, Lykke Li and The Knife are banded around haphazardly.