Modern pop is in a strange place. Crossovers abound from Juicy J showing up on “Dark Horse” to Miley teaming up with the Flaming Lips. It’s exciting to watch a genre often maligned as pandering to a mass audience have experimental edges creep into the mainstream conscious. In 2014 the most intriguing (and possibly strangest) development is Nabuma Rubberband. It’s a fascinating mix of soul, trip-hop, and American pop born out of Gothenburg, Sweden, of all places. It happily bounces from genre to genre, spearheaded by an odd and mesmerizingly great frontwoman, backed with subtly brilliant production. And this Scandinavian quartet have made one of the year’s best pop albums.
For the last few years Little Dragon have been making waves through lead singer Yukimi Nagano’s features. She gave show stopping performances on Gorillaz’s “Empire Ants” and had a break out guest spot on SBTRKT’s “Wildfire”. Damon Albarn and SBTRKT were smart enough to let Nagano carry the songs she appeared on, letting her strangely beautiful voice take center stage. Nagano continues her streak of excellence here. She’s got a stunning range, in terms of both pitch and emotion. The band mythos states that the name “Little Dragon” came from Nagano’s temper during recording sessions and there’s still a fiery anger here, though she reveals it in subtle ways. Her first words on the album are “You know you’re making me mad…” and the ending consonant is twisted so it sounds like a “t”. When Nagano sings “You’re gonna make me put my fist through this mirror”, it isn’t screamed, and that makes it all the more intense. On the other end of the spectrum Nagano can work a more narrative perspective looking at daily life from an outsider’s point of few. “His white shirts still hanging in rows on the closet door / She still hurts / Fragments of you live on,” Nagano sings on the opening verse of “Underbart”. Shifting relationships are the main component of Nagano’s lyrics. “Somebody from his head said / You can turn off and feel better,” she croons on “Klapp Klapp” before the bridge comes in with “Gimme me one more / The girl from the corridor sing, she sing / I hear you want it, don’t you?” She also touches on Little Dragon’s international touring with evocative lines like “Cigar smoke stretchin’ over borders / Creepin’ like silent thief.”
Nagano has plenty of stunning moments on Nabuma Rubberband, but it’s clear this is a full band enterprise. Album highlight “Klapp Klapp” has one of Nagano’s best vocal lines, but bassist Fredrik Källgren Wallin introduces the song perfectly with a high energy duet with drummer Erik Bodin. The dynamic chemistry between Wallin and Bodin drives a majority of these songs along. The smooth and propulsive “Underbart” has Wallin’s synth bass holding down the low end while Bodin propels the song along with high-hats and cowbells. The ethereal “Cat Rider” seems ready to evaporate at a moment’s notice, but Bodin and Wallin make sure the song has a strong, yet understated, foundation, allowing Nagano’s beautiful voice to chastise a friend with “Stop playing with the one you love.” Keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand has a wonderful habit of forcing these songs into dancier territory. The creeping line on “Killing Me”, the bouncing title track, and the singing synths of “Underbart” are just a few of his best moments. If there’s any other group that Bodin, Wallin, and Wirenstrand’s playing is reminiscent of it’s Rhye. Much like Woman, Little Dragon’s newest release has a deeply sleek and romantic feel. The title track run parallel to songs like “Open” or “The Fall” with well curated string sections.
In groups like this it’s hard to strike a balance between letting the singer carry the song and having the band create their own grand structures. Thankfully, Nagano never devolves into a diva, instead she bonds her voice to the backgrounds conjured by the rest of Little Dragon. When she shatters glass on “Mirror” the response is, what sounds like, an off-kilter saxophone accompanying her anger. On the more restrained songs Nagano rests her voice with more languid notes, but quickly switches when Bodin energizes the pieces. “Paris” has rapid verses that match the instruments’ energy. “Paris” is also a great example of the crossover appeal that Nabuma Rubberband holds. “Paris” is sure to be a hit in indie communities, but the chorus of “Dreams pass, my black dress / Folded on a big mess / I’m changing my next flight to Paris”, could easily become a dancefloor chant. The song primed to be a massive hit for Little Dragon is “Klapp Klapp”. It’s similar to Phantogram’s “Howling at the Moon”. Both songs are driven by badass frontwomen and absolutely banging production. If you want to follow Daft Punk’s advice and lose yourself to dance get engulfed by “Klapp Klapp”. Though that advice could go for just about any song here.