Since forming in 1996, Little Dragon has been known for singer Yukimi Nagano’s voice. It’s elegant and lulling, leaving a mark that’s sexy and subtle in the best way possible. So, it came as no surprise when the Swedish quartet’s footprint deepened after she lended her voice out to Swedish peers like Koop, Herd or José González through the 2000s. Then, after a band-wide collaboration with Damon Albarn and his Gorillaz for 2010 “Plastic Beach” tune “Empire Ants,” the Swedish-American Nagano was wanted. Songs with the likes of Raphael Saadiq, DJ Shadow, Maximum Balloon and SBTRKT were all released this year alone and news on two forthcoming tunes with Big Boi also surfaced in late October. Now that the quartet’s third album, Ritual Union is finally here to follow 2009’s Machine Dreams, it’s difficult not to wonder how the band’s self-identity has been influenced by all this associate work.
Sitting somewhere between light, quirky electronic pop prod and chilling nocturnal soundscapes, Ritual Union is pleasing like that of a background soundtrack but fails to create any lasting engagement between listener and artist, lobbing around confusing tracking errors and unfinished directions- it’s exactly what I had feared. Outside of tunes like “Crystalfilm” (remember Sam Sparro’s moment, “Black and Gold?”) and title track “Ritual Union,” much of the album is devoid of those moments that make electronic pop, ahh, pop and not just atmosphere. Few songs give off the hooks and choruses they deserve, oftentimes coming down to a simple misfortune in follow through. Take “Summertearz” where an Atari-Pong-ball-bouncing-from-paddle-to-paddle beat stifles itself from the swell the song could be at, the completely unnecessary album closer “Seconds” or “Phase Turn” which sounds like a cheap and novice entry to the bedroom electronica contest.
Though Ritual Union’s pop side suffers, the album’s other face, the cold and immersive one, hides its better moments. On “Brush the Heat,” it’s a smattering of R&B and light funk, under an off-kilter electro freeze or “Precious” which starts with a dripping witch house drag before moving to a funky, loungy jog. It’s near the end that Little Dragon really comes together with the lost-in-motion, six-minute slice, “When I Go Out.” It’s a different song entirely. You spend the whole record going between tunes that are cold and tunes that are quirky, Nagano’s voice always on top of the track. Here though, she’s squeezed through a vocoder, lost in the other room and hidden beneath the surface with the rest of the track- and band for that matter. It feels more like a group effort as opposed to just a voice on top of laptop beats. This is the issue at the heart of Ritual Union, a disjointed and anonymous record that has a hard time creating an identity for Little Dragon over one for Yukimi Nagano.