Album Of The Week: Little Dragon Season High
The coastal town of Gothenburg is Sweden’s second-biggest city, but it’s not a big city; you can walk across the whole place in a couple of hours. (If you get a chance, do that. It’s beautiful.) But for a place that’s really, in the grand scheme, just a blip, Gothenburg has a rich and confounding musical profile. The artists who come from that place tend to be hard to pin down. The Knife make seething, intense electro-punk into grand-scale experimental theater. José González does confessional singer-songwriter music that’s built around rhythm. The city has a whole scene of woozy DIY pop artists — JJ, Tough Alliance, Air France — whose presentation is built around being as mysterious as possible. And it has a whole scene of extreme-metal titans — At The Gates, In Flames — whose whole sound is built around being as catchy and melodic and triumphant as possible.
Ace Of Base — who conquered the early-’90s pop world while making music that sounded like futuristic alien robots attempting to make reggae — come from Gothenburg. So does Crazy Frog, the mid-’00s novelty character who may have actually been some sort of futuristic alien robot. At least within Sweden, the city’s most popular musical export is Häkan Hellström, a genial floppy-haired indie-popper who sometimes performs in a sailor suit and who triggers enormous mass euphoria the second he touches a stage. The first time I encountered this guy was at a Swedish festival, and I asked one freaking-out bystander to explain what the fuck was going on, who was this guy. “In Sweden,” my new friend politely explained, “he is our Johnny Cash.” And he pronounced “Johnny” as “Yanni.” It’s a great town. Nothing makes sense there.
The most cosmopolitan music coming out of this deeply cosmopolitan little town comes from Little Dragon, a group that has managed to exist for five albums and well over a decade without ever settling on anything resembling a given genre. Depending on the song, Little Dragon can be R&B, or dance, or downtempo chillout-room music, or some deftly off-kilter form of bedroom-pop. It’s not that they don’t have a personality; they do. Their music is consistently slinky and approachable, and it sounds good when you’re trying on clothes or drinking elaborate cocktails. But that personality is a fluid, elusive thing; they can melt stylistically into just about anything. Drake appears to adore them, which makes sense; he aspires to do the same thing. And singer Yukimi Nagano, in recent years, has shown up on records from a wide-ranging group of collaborators — Big Boi, SBTRKT, Kaytranada, Mac Miller, Flume, De La Soul — without requiring any of them to adjust their styles in the slightest. She fits right in.
On past records, I’ve found Little Dragon to be pleasant enough without ever being revelatory. They’ve got a bit of that late-’90s hip-hop bohemian thing about them, where they’ll undermine their own pop instincts while making their beats willfully muddy and awkward. And while that definitely makes their music more interesting, it also makes it more tentative. And maybe that’s what I like so much about Season High, the quartet’s fifth and latest. They sound fully formed and confident in a way that I haven’t heard from them before. They’ve kept their sophisticated, tricky edge, but they’re also swinging for the fences this time out.
This is a bold album, and it’s often a funky one too. Prince’s spirit hangs heavy; Little Dragon knew what they were doing when they named one song “The Pop Life.” But even in the most Prince-damaged tracks, there’s enough restless experimentation going on that it never feels like imitation. Opening track “Celebrate” is a sexy little synth-funk groove, but it also has an eruptive Eddie Van Halen-style guitar solo and a hiccuping synthesized-voice refrain that push it out of any familiar realm. “Sweet” and “Push” sound a bit like that late-’80s moment when house DJs were trying to figure out how to make pop music, when they ended up throwing R&B gospel howlers over their cheapest, hardest beats. “Butterflies” is a lovely beatless kaleidoscope that sounds a bit like what might happen if Homogenic-era Björk tried to make a neo-soul ballad. The expansive seven-minute closer “Gravity” drifts off into the ether without ever losing its sense of groove.
This isn’t a revolutionary album. It exists at the nexus of “pleasant” and “interesting” — the kind of place that might brighten up your day without ever really changing your life. That’s always, I think, been Little Dragon’s aim. They play around with sound in slick and professional ways, and Nagano does impressive things with her voice without ever using it to overwhelm a song. The real difference, I think, is that the songs are a bit stronger and stickier this time than they have been in the past. They’re more likely to bounce around in your head for a little longer. Little Dragon have been playing around with the pieces of their sound for a long time — pieces that most artists wouldn’t even try to combine. On Season High, Little Dragon sound like they’re putting them together. They still don’t make sense, but these days, their not-making-sense makes its own kind of sense.
Season High is out 4/14 on Loma Vista.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Kendrick Lamar’s feverishly anticipated DAMN.
• Actress’ immersive, disorienting techno return AZD.
• Caddywhompus’ messy noise-rocker Odd Hours.
• Talib Kweli and Styles P’s unlikely team-up The Seven.
• Lillie Mae’s old-school country shitkicker Forever And Then Some.
• Low Road’s synthy, melancholic Once In A Long, Long While…
• The rap-collab-heavy soundtrack for The Fate Of The Furious.