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.
After the success of their self-titled debut in 2007, which gained exposure through intensive radio play in Los Angeles and a tireless US tour in support of TV on the Radio, Little Dragon were poised for either increasing success or a sophomore slump and fade into musical obscurity. Smartly, they took all of the positive elements of their first record — the whimsy and bouncing rhythms — and added deft sonic layers and a futuristic theme to create Machine Dreams, thus avoiding the latter tailspin. Instead, it shows a band unifying in artistic purpose, coming to maturity to produce an album that is an obviously equal composite of all its members. Nobody is tugging in different directions or seeking to explore more mainstream and therefore more lucrative paths. Little Dragon have a simple vision and its clear that everyone is working together to achieve it.
Machine Dreams starts slowly, like waking from slumber and trudging to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, with glitchy effects and reluctant pacing on “A New”. “Looking Glass”, on the other hand, is the rejuvenating splash of water to the face with its carousing bassline and chirpy synthesizer. The anxious blipping and urgent bass of “My Step” is like being late on the commute to work, and “Feather”, for its part, is like the two hours spent gazing out the window at the rustling trees and sunshine before anything productive gets done. I’m taking the metaphor too far, I know, but the fact remains that Little Dragon excel at creating moods and sensations without ever sounding like an affected novelty. There is a very organic feel to their music that runs counter to the first word of the album’s title, not least because of Nagano’s silken vocals, which transcend verbal communication into an elegant expression of the subconscious. This kind of wondrous subtlety continues with the minimalism of “Never Never” and frantic jubilation of the R&B-infused “Runabout”. Even the deliberateness of “Swimming”, which doesn’t seem to match the aesthetic spirit of the rest of the album, still manages to sound good.
Machine Dreams closes with the intense longing of “Come Home” and the dreamlike haziness of “Fortune”, imparting a sense of the last waking moments before sleep upon the listener. Without a doubt, Little Dragon have a unique gift that allows them to transform the mechanical process of instrumentation into a more fluid sonic experience, transitioning seamlessly between light and heavily atmospheric like dreams themselves. Their sound and style is all-enveloping and cloud-like in its coziness, somehow familiar and, more crucially, relatable in the unassuming way it seeps into the brain. This is electronic pop music done right, free from hipster trimmings or overly vulnerable declarations of self-discovery, and a sure sign that Little Dragon have all the strength and memorability of a lucid dream.