Little Dragon escapes the R&B-according-to-hipsters pitfall
MUSIC My original topic for this article was how indie-rock artists exploit modern R&B and soul music for their nefarious gains. I planned to center my rage at Village Voice "Pazz & Jop" doofuses who ignore future soul overachievers like Sa-Ra Creative Partners; random idiots who bop around to the likes of Trey Songz and T-Pain in ironic, condescending fashion; rock-crit gatekeepers like Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef, who claimed on ilovemusic.com that "I think your best bet is to turn music crit readers into R&B fans, not R&B fans into music crit readers," as if R&B fans (re: black people?) aren't smart enough to develop critical philosophy; recidivists who shill for mercury-laden masterpieces like Iggy Pop's Funhouse and Weezer's Pinkerton while shunning slickly produced wonders like Aretha Franklin's Sparkle and Mary J. Blige's My Life; and any dumbass who wails about how great Motown and Stax 45s are but stubbornly blocks them from the all-important Great Rock Albums canon, arguing that soul artists make classic singles, but not classic albums (in other words, sit in the back of the bus).
The turning point for my paranoid hipster conspiracy would be Little Dragon, who will conveniently return to San Francisco on April 14 for a gig at the Independent. Hailing from Sweden, Little Dragon fuses neo-soul and R&B with the whimsicality of electronic pop. So, for several minutes, I asked lead singer Yukimi Nagano to pick apart Little Dragon's sound. It seemed silly in retrospect, and not just because Little Dragon already does that on its Web site. Nagano exudes a cool serenity that tames you like Pixar movies temper sugar-addled children and grownups. Focusing on her influences feels like analyzing the computers Pixar uses — worthwhile from a factual standpoint, but ultimately missing the point.
"My favorites were Faith Evans and Brandy, then also a lot of classics like Prince. I love Erykah Badu and a bunch of different stuff," Nagano said. She and her bandmates — Erik Bodin, Frederik Wallin, and Hakan Wirenstrand — write songs in the classic pop format, blending in "electronic sounds and electronic music because you can experiment so much with it. We have so many different influences, everything from South African house music to soul, R&B, hip-hop and whatever. All the guys produce, and everyone has their own character in writing, so that also gives our albums a lift. It's not just one person making everything." Nagano's character, so to speak, "is that I try to be free in my writing. And people can hear the soul influences in my vocals, I guess."
Little Dragon's 2007 self-titled debut was full of slow-burning ballads that owed as much to modern R&B, with its singers' penchant for subdued melisma and jazzy inflections, as to the synthesized blue tones of 1980s New Wave. "No love left in here/No love in this room/No love in my soul left for you," she sang on "No Love," her dourness seeping through the downbeat track. A poetic writer, she used her bandmates' atmospheric melancholia to coin strangely elliptical lines: "Walking down the stairs, anonymous detached, on the corner I turn, I turn, I turn left." Not surprisingly, there is homage of sorts to Billie Holiday in "Stormy Weather," although the lyrics concern something else.
Last year's Machine Dreams also had lollygaggers wandering aimlessly about, but the music was fuller and more vibrant. Instead of ballads with sad little keyboard riffs, there were panoplies of sounds, from the percussion titters of "A New" to the dense yet airy washes of "Fortune." Much of the album is kookily uptempo, with clockwork rhythms reminiscent of Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby (in a good way). "Playing live [during the tour for the first album] made us want to pick up the tempo," Nagano said. "We really love playing dance music. There's nothing as great as seeing people dancing."
As Little Dragon pushes in a new direction, the R&B sounds that once inspired them drift into the past. The band is listening to different stuff now, like Depeche Mode, DJ Cleo, and Gui Buratto. "Obviously the first album was written a long time ago, and it's been a few years. Those songs were written even before 2007. They were already old for us then. Time has passed and you change."
Machine Dreams is a qualitative leap from the debut album, which Nagano dismisses as "demos" that the group's label, Peacefrog Records, released without their permission. (She was pleasantly surprised when audiences responded so well to it.) And if Little Dragon is better equipped to harness its current Kraftwerk obsession than the R&B passions of the past, then so be it. Regardless, the results don't sound like anything else.
"I love music so much, and the guys do as well," Nagano said. "You know how you get that kick from something you haven't heard, and get inspired? It's a great kick to have in your life. We want to find that as often as we can." That seems painfully obvious to me. *
With VV Brown, HOTTUB
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