Little Dragon: Machine Dreams

[30 August 2009]

By Estella Hung

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. Synth/keyboard player Håkan Wirenstrand, wearing a beard that rivals TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe’s, certainly has the exploratory facility of an Ian Marsh.

Little Dragon are a Swedish band of former high school buddies beating off the Gothenburg blues with condensation-forming tunes like “Twice”, which, you may recall, made the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack. Machine Dreams offers more of their self-titled debut’s aural dialectic, which pits Nagano’s frothing delivery with a Fever Ray-type eerie remove. It’s a dialectic that doesn’t find an easy resolution, and is more beautiful for its slightly jarring complexity. What we have, then, are pop songs that are piquant with lots of cavities to fill, thanks to Wirenstrand’s less-is-more sensibility. Yet, despite the into-the-night sparseness of Machine Dreams, Little Dragon sound like they’re playing in your attic because of the near absence of fuzz and reverb and other studio tricks.

Little Dragon, the band’s 2007 debut, was a Swedish iteration of American R&B and soul rendered by the synth machine, with some introspection shaved off Joy Division. Machine Dreams bares less soul, but ups the BPM a tad, letting loose the synth histrionics, with experimentalism that runs kinks into Depeche Mode with Bow Wow Wow-style tribal forays. The group’s indebtedness to Depeche Mode shines most brilliantly on upcoming single “Feathers”, with its windswept atmospherics and glutinous bassline, as well as “My Step”, with its scratchy synth ostinato and deep techno bass. The former’s cherubic aspect is wryly offset by the lyric, “Rather be a bandit than a lover / Rather be a man with the other / To run the mountain down, run it down / Rather be a whisper in heaven / Than a daughter locked in your prison”. Such lyrical turns are rampant on Machine Dreams.

The ghost of Malcolm McLaren hovers in “Looking Glass”, a song that makes you feel like you’re in an Indonesian jungle, yet it’s propped up by a robust trashcan-tied-to-feet stomp. To boot, Nagano cryptically intones, “Spilled our hearts our souls until it forced us to swim / But all the water pass / Was sinking fast”. More than halfway through the song, Wirenstrand steals the spotlight with a squelchy and gnarly hook masquerading as Brian May on guitar. “Thunder Love” affects Royksopp’s cavernous remoteness with singular drones and dripping sonic dew, while tribal polyrhythms throw up an image of camp-fire intimacy. Nagano’s East Asian roots are ostensibly honoured in “Run About”, with its chirping pentatonic motif, while the group plugs into the current obsession with retro computer sounds in “Swimming”. As in Little Dragon’s jagged “After the Rain”, the group aren’t content with simple vocal rhythms. This reaches a zenith with the slightly claustrophobic “Come Home”.

Like a fine wine, much of Machine Dreams’s complexity comes fully fledged only when savoured on repeat listens. Unfortunately, even though it’s meant to be a “dance album” with lyrical and musical complexity in spades, it achieves a languidness that can be yawn inducing. Despite my gushing about Nagano being an important part of Little Dragon’s USP, the soporific nature of the group’s sound owes something to this lynchpin. Her distinctly wispy croon—when recorded, not performed live, mind you—paired with the delicate navel-gazing aspect of the group’s sound does, sad to say, have this effect. It is worth mentioning that when Nagano belts her soul out on Swedish electronic duo Koop’s resplendent Koop Islands (2006), it is unmistakeably refreshing.

Nonetheless, Machine Dreams is an exercise in scoping out the frontiers of avant-garde electronic pop not seen since the early ‘80s. They are a cult band in waiting, and will hopefully enjoy the recognition afforded other electro outfits like the Knife.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/110032-little-dragon-machine-dreams/