A lot of the marginal, R&B-inspired music that has been coming out in recent years and picking up plaudits among various strains of the music obsessed has functioned by smudging, slowing and screwing, concocting opaque and transparently druggy murk for slouching toward the end of the night. Even the vocals – the clearest place where R&B is R&B, at least as the term is used in common parlance – often get treated, the transcendence of an imitable performance swapped for the euphoria of a human voice manipulated into a fantasy realm. Sometimes this works for me and sometimes it doesn’t, but the thought of an entire night soundtracked by these swampy, humid hybrids sluggishly thickening the air does not particularly appeal.
Little Dragon seems to have decided to do something completely different. The truth is that they will never quite escape signifying to varying degrees “R&B” for the simple reason that Yukimi Nagano’s voice is saturated with the range, soul and sultry emotionality that delineates the genre to a large degree. She does, however, render through these tropes subtler shadings and more quizzical states, expressed both in the modulations of her voice and the intersecting images in her lyrics. While the band moved into machine funk territory on their previous record, Machine Dreams, here things have been sped up and stripped down, the backbone of many songs dry, metronomic beats that all but scream Krautrock.
While there are plenty of memorable melodies, surfacing and receding or just showing up late in the game to throw everything into new relief, as on the excellent eponymous opener, starkness and repetition, almost skeletal throughout, seems to equally define this record. Or, rather, the melodies and flourishes of color don’t make sense or don’t carry the same charge unless one acknowledges that functioning beneath them is a mechanical soul that rushes neither into bleak terrain nor the epiphanic, a sort of neutral though kinetic canvas upon which the slightest variation can carry meaning or affect.
But there are moments that veer elsewhere: “Brush the Heat” is obviously influenced by UK bass music, its stuttering beats and dense low-end flushing out a bluish smoke in which lethargic pulses smooth the mood and pinging melodies swirl around, circling Yukimi Nagano’s voice like so many sequenced fireflies. On “When I Go Out” that voice is caked in reverb, doubled by a shadowy bass voice, twisted into something that expresses through its status as manipulated, erased and deformed rather than a coherence of sentiment of depth of voiced emotion. Synthesizer lines cross and swell, sounding like sci-fi soundtrack gear laced with the moody, nighttime atmospherics of Chromatics.
“Seconds” is the record’s closer and while it doesn’t surpass the groups earlier album-enders, “Twice” and “Fortune,” the best work on their respective records, it is certainly in the same class, developing and maintaining a hypnotic realm that is cause for eager repetition. Its other-half may be the exuberant “Nightlight,” where snake-charmer melodies add an extra-edge of out-there to the soulful veering between kraut and dance.
There are moments where it feels like certain tracks aren’t particularly doing much but in the context of the whole that is not really a problem, mainly because the voice at the center is one of those rare entities that can make whatever context it drops into resonate with something worth attending to. Ritual Union is the best record Little Dragon has put out yet, managing repetition and chance in a way commensurable to its apparent aspiration to make machine music that, for all its apparent influences, fashions a ground very much its own.
Stream: Little Dragon – “Nightlight”