For the last few years, Little Dragon have quietly graduated to the status of ‘the next most likely to succeed’. It’s not just been the quality of their three albums (and their fourth, Ritual Union, was one of the best albums of 2012), but the frequency that they showed up elsewhere too. Guest spots with the prestigious likes of Gorillaz, SBTRKT and TV On The Radio‘s Dave Sitek only confirmed their burgeoning reputation.
Which makes the release of Nabuma Rubberband feel something like an event: that long-awaited commercial breakthrough, maybe. It turns out that it’s not – the Swedes are far too smart to go full-on pop – and the slinky hooks and dance beats of their last record have been replaced by some smooth, soulful, slow-burning grooves. That doesn’t make the album a failure by any means: in fact, a move into Goldfrapp/Morcheeba territory suits them down to the ground, but it does mean that Nabuma Rubberband is a record to soak deep into, rather than provide a quick hit.
The opening Mirror sets the atmosphere appropriately – despite sharing a co-writing credit with Dave from De La Soul, it’s resolute in leaving the funk at home, being a minimal, skeletal mood-piece which sees lead singer Yukimi Nagano sounding exquisitely sad as she rails against frustration and apathy – “you’re going to make me put my fist through this mirror”. Not much seems to be happening, but you’re intrigued to know more.
Although this languid approach is repeated through much of the album, it’s on the lead single Klapp Klapp that Nabuma Rubberband really catches fire. Featuring an appropriately (given the name of the record) elastic bassline, an infectious chorus and several moments where the song just dissolves into exhilarating noise before springing back into life. It’s leftfield pop music at its very best.
The trick is repeated by Killing Me, a huge fizzy number with a swagger as sexy as Strict Machine-era Goldfrapp, only with a lyrical focus on fleeing from a relationship. As Nagano sings in one of her finest moments on the record: “I’ll take my rocketship and get the hell out of here, nothing that I’m gonna miss…you’re killing me.”
The smooth, synth-drenched Paris is another highlight, reminiscent of Metronomy at their best, but with the added advantage of Nagano’s beguiling voice. Of course, her vocals are wisely the centrepiece of the record, with most of the songs being built around that rich and emotive voice. She can sound powerfully melancholic on tracks like Paris, sweet and seductive on slow-jams like Pretty Girls, and strangely other-worldly on the eerie, shimmering Only One.
Sometimes though, it all meanders a bit too much, sacrificing melody for mood with the result that the album doesn’t hang together as well as it should. The album’s first half of Pretty Girls, Underbart and Cat Rider all sound gorgeous but also rather similar, with only the sparkling synths of Paris giving a welcome jolt. Little Dragon never slip into blandness exactly, but you do sometimes find yourself longing for a bit more energy of the type provided by Klapp Klapp or the title track.
But Little Dragon are to be applauded though for constantly evolving and embracing new sounds and directions. While Nabuma Rubberband may not be the commercial breakthrough that some may have expected, it’s still a largely enjoyable record and, together with fellow Swede Lyyke Li‘s new album, proves once again that nobody does swooningly melancholic pop quite like the Scandanavians.