There’s a playlist on my computer called “Fly or Die.” Limbo for 2011 promos, it’s where albums await the executive decision on whether they merit hard drive space. I still haven’t gotten around to a lot of it. Four hundred songs strong and 1.2 days long, it contains multitudes: scrapey free improv that makes me feel antsy, buzz-band garage rock I mean to take a harder line with, and several shades of synthesizer tomfoolery. Ritual Union, the latest album from Gothenburg, Sweden’s Little Dragon, doesn’t live in that playlist, but it’s a no-brainer fly — the sort of music you reach for when you have people over. It fills a room nicely, but not to distraction; when you check in with it, it’s typically up to something delightful.
In the humid press of my music library, however, it might get lost. In pretty much every respect, Little Dragon is an excellent band. Ritual Union is its third album, and it’s a successful development of the sound the group nailed on its 2007 debut and embellished, at the expense of a few hooks, on 2009’s Machine Dreams. Little Dragon’s music doesn’t belong to any particular genre — between singer Yukimi Nagano’s R&B-inflected singing and the band’s dialed-in grooves, they touch on electro-pop, neo-soul, hip hop and more, while maintaining a consistent sound, song to song, album to album. They break with that sound for one of Ritual Union‘s songs: “When I Go Out” is almost a fourth-world shuffle, with Nagano’s vocals approximating Jon Hassell’s treated horn lines. But for the most pasrt, the band has just gotten tighter and more focused with each release. The basic premise — tonally if not formally — is hip hop played like it’s all about nervous energy. Less boom-bap and more click-snap. On the album track, arcing synth stabs pop up with the loosed potential energy of snapped rubber bands. Ritual Union is as hypnotic as it is catchy: the songs are there, but it’s difficult to remember or distinguish them once the album’s over.
Consdering where Little Dragon is at in its career, it could be that an album’s worth of deep cuts is the point. Little Dragon’s music sells itself quite well: the group’s landed a song on Grey’s Anatomy; Erykah Badu’s a fan; more recently, they’ve collaborated with Gorillaz and Big Boi, and Yukimi N. guests SBTRKT’s album.It probably doesn’t feel much pressure to expand its audience. Another snag comes from Little Dragon’s penchant for vague lyrics describing vaguer scenarios. “Ritual union” is a promising turn of phrase, but not much is done with it — the listener is rarely stirred to listen for the lyrics in the same way as “Twice” or “Constant Surprises” from 2007’s Little Dragon. However well executed Ritual Union is, it doesn’t have the emotional weight or grain to make it stand out as much as it deserves. Given the band’s high-profile collaborators and fans, I’m sure we’ll cross paths at some point in the news cycle or when I’m locked in a paralyzing drain of indecision in a trendy clothing store. I welcome it. They are a sight better than most of the things in that playlist.