Speaking on her recent discovery of depression-era blues icon Robert Johnson, lead singer Yukimi Nagano notes the value and influence of his music: ‘it moves steadily like a trance. It was so dark and mysterious […] when I heard it I thought, “Oh my god, this is really mind blowing.”’ Stepping away from the playful, up-tempo charisma of their earlier years, Little Dragon’s new release ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ delves into a similarly lightless and soulful, direction. As the album opens with breathy, distressed vocals, repeatedly punctured by embittered outbursts of drums, the Gothenburg foursome flirt with their more serious side. Little Dragon have evidently steered well clear of creating a chirpy synth-heavy pop album in a mindless attempt to break the mainstream. Instead, the vibe is sometimes slow and seductive, other times raw and vexed, but constantly awash with a spaced out, otherworldly soundscape.
The consistency to this album is what sets it a head above its predecessors. Whilst ‘Ritual Union’ was an infectious, yet somewhat fragmented, collection, ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ is more fluid and coherent. Yet with an album so rich in this drifting and vacant vibe, it is easy to arrive at the glossy eighties synthpop-inspired ‘Paris’ thinking ‘where the fuck did the last 3 songs go?’. Cuts like ‘Underbart’, ‘Cat Rider’ and ‘Pink Cloud’ seem to blend into the dense and sultry synths, slipping from any memory of ever listening to them.
Perhaps it is the unswerving elegance of Nagano’s voice that is responsible for this. Caressing every note, she fluidly oscillates between romantic, tender highs and a withdrawn emptiness that is just so easy to become wrapped up in. Her vocals are undoubtedly what made Little Dragon initially so alluring, and ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ is no exception. Complementing the charm of her voice is the string section that is woven in to the title track. They bring warmth amongst the layers of industrial and rigid kicks and snares, mimicking the weightless flight of the ‘last bird’ before it ‘smashed into a skyscraper under the Hong Kong lights’.
Ultimately, what the album lacks is banger. The downtempo and dystopian beats become almost frustrating by the last few songs, leaving you with a craving for a taste of the funky, twitchy electronica that defined the band five years ago. ‘Klapp Klapp’ comes close, but the uncomfortably rigid drums makes it fall short. Similarly, ‘Only One’ gradually builds from an ethereal and heartfelt slow jam into a grittier, heavier, 3-in-the-morning-warehouse-project type loop, but lacks the chaos to make it truly thrilling.
As ‘Let Go’ echoes out into the distance, the wintry emptiness that was so prevalent throughout lingers on. Polished and produced almost to perfection it may be, there is a distinct lack of human warmth and an over-emphasis on despondency: ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ leaves you feeling quite cold. Little Dragon have developed a seriously sophisticated sound, no doubt, but in the process have lost some of their vibrancy and playfulness. Hopefully, in their next releases, they’ll flash a few more smiles.
Words: Josie 'JR' Roberts