Little Dragon review – a band on the verge of greatness

The dreamily idiosyncratic Gothenburg four-piece beguile at Village Underground – all they need now is a little focus

For most of Little Dragon's performance – a low-key comeback, presaging a highly anticipated new album – they remain more or less invisible. Backlit in blue, gauzed in dry ice, the Swedish foursome are occasionally illuminated from the side. Lanky bassist Fred Wallin's shadow projects up the brick walls of this former warehouse. You can make out bushy-bearded, ponytailed keyboard magus Håkan Wirenstrand in silhouette. Singer Yukimi Nagano shirks the usual strutting, fretting and spotlighting that goes with being a frontwoman, her sinuous vocals just one of the elements – acrylic digitals, live percussion, deep bass – swirling around. A dancer in a catsuit and large shades turns up at the back, adding her lively shapes to Nagano's supplicating arm gestures.

Little Dragon are emphatically not a band in high definition. Sonically as well as visually, they don't do "obvious". They aren't paid-up sonic radicals like the Knife exactly, but exist in their own little bubble, one that has been much in demand. Their ratio of hits to renown is intriguing. A bunch of schoolfriends, Little Dragon have been around for more than 15 years. Suddenly, between their 2009 album, Machine Dreams, and their 2011 "greatest hit", Ritual Union, A-list musicians and producers began falling at their feet. Collaborations with Gorillaz and OutKast's Big Boi propelled the Gothenburg R&B outfit into a giddy world of guest spots, TV syncs and fashion show parties: that was Nagano on SBTRKT's debut album, on producer David Sitek's Maximum Balloon project. It's rumoured they turned down the desk services of both Pharrell Williams and Diplo. Kendrick Lamar came to a show they did in LA last October; Dave from De La Soul has co-written Mirror, the arresting opening track of the new album.

All this recognition came without anything resembling a hit: just dreamy, shape-shifting, bespoke R&B pop, full of clever little sounds, topped off by the half-Japanese, half-Swedish, American-raised Nagano's yearning glide of a voice. The title track of their last album, Ritual Union, came closest of all to pop, with structure and an actual chorus. It arrives mid-set tonight. Nagano steps out of the shadows, Wirenstrand brings new bits into the arrangement and this reveal lifts the gig several notches.

Little Dragon are a masterful dance band – a groove they can fall into and out of with ease. Some of the night's most ecstatic moments find them just making straightforward club music, beats anchoring all their slinky subtleties. Paris, a new song, actually starts like 80s pop, with keyboard melodies rampant and perky percussion. Naturally, it takes a series of left turns, taking you with them.

The idea with every new album is that it should build on, if not exceed, the skill set of its predecessor, so hopes are high for Nabuma Rubberband, the band's fourth, due in May. The script requires that Little Dragon make good on so much potential; that they inch, perhaps, further towards a mainstream that is frankly begging them to join it. What they have actually done is largely toned down the pace of their last two records and embraced the dreamier end of R&B on songs such as Cat Rider – a little like an R&B Cocteau Twins, itchily produced by the Weeknd. As ever, Nagano's vocal refuses to do anything standard, meandering celestially around the arrangement.

Ritual Union was patently about relationships; this early on, Nabuma Rubberband hasn't revealed any over-arching themes, but escape is one. Killing Me, one of the most immediate of the new songs, has an uncommon bass swagger to it, a jazzy turn, and the line "I'll take my rocket ship and get the hell out of this/ Nothing that I can miss/ You're killing me." It's about as dark as they have ever gone, and it is good.

There is an element of frustration to Little Dragon's tasteful, non-U groove-pop, however. They are very near some kind of greatness; all it would take is some minor concession to structure and focus. A case in point is one of tonight's highlights: the oscillation unleashed near the end of Klapp Klapp, Little Dragon's sort-of new single. It's typical Dragon: a louche bassline leads into a busy on-beat. There are some heavenly noises. It's hard to make out what Nagano is singing, adding to a sense of impenetrable prettiness. But why does the hook come at the end? You'd want to bang your head against the Village Underground's exposed brickwork, if it weren't all so lovely.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Nabuma Rubberband review – Little Dragon retreat from the dancefloor
The Gothenburg band opt for textured atmospherics over a crack at the big time, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

10, May, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Little Dragon: Season High review – an overdue day in pop’s sun
Having seemed on the verge of a breakthrough for so long, Sweden’s eccentric electronic four-piece finally indulge in pure musical pleasure

Bernadette McNulty

16, Apr, 2017 @8:00 AM

Little Dragon: Ritual Union – review

Little Dragon frustratingly still have yet to find a distinctive voice, says Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

16, Jul, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
The Knife – review

The Knife make no apologies for miming onstage, and do so with such aplomb it barely seems to matter, writes Killian Fox

Killian Fox

11, May, 2013 @11:05 PM

Article image
Lykke Li – review
Swedish singer Lykke Li has ditched the cutesy pop of her first LP in favour of something dark, brooding and utterly magnificent, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

16, Apr, 2011 @11:06 PM

Article image
The Knife: Shaking the Habitual – review
The Knife's fourth album cuts cerebral references with primal urges to winning effect, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

06, Apr, 2013 @11:04 PM

The Weeknd: Trilogy – review
The Weeknd's three free online mixtapes get the major-label treatment, making this an essential buy if you missed them first time around, writes Killian Fox

Killian Fox

11, Nov, 2012 @12:05 AM

Little Dragon: Ritual Union – review

Maddy Costa admires Little Dragon's combination of cool self-containment and impassioned emotion

Maddy Costa

14, Jul, 2011 @9:20 PM

Article image
Rosalía: Motomami review – energy and heartbreak from a first-class voice
The Spanish singer’s third album delivers gem after gem, as flamenco rhythms rub shoulders with sassy party flexes

Kitty Empire

20, Mar, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Weeknd: Dawn FM review – shimmering pop in extremis
Abel Tesfaye goes to the brink, and back to the 80s, on his most cohesive album yet

Michael Cragg

16, Jan, 2022 @1:00 PM