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"Ritual Union"

Little Dragon – Ritual Union
18 July 2011, 08:59 Written by Emma Tucker

In Ritual Union, Little Dragon have lost some of the light-hearted pop feeling of 2009’s Machine Dreams, where that seemed carefree, Ritual Union is imbued with a sense of dreamy longing. There are still the R&B vocal stylings from lead singer Yumi Nagano, held up by the electronic wizardry of her fellow bandmates, but it feels like it’s been touched by melancholy. That said, this is the best kind of melancholy – with the inherent rhythm of the lyrics and syncopated backing beats keeping it from descending into angst.

The eponymous opening track is, in some ways, quite minimal. The mix of sounds is tightly controlled, with each individual element allowed a chance to come to the foreground. The vocals evoke a sense of sadness, and with lyrics like “I drowned my feelings in the sea” it’s not really surprising. One of the strongest points of this album are the vocals and lyrics. All the words have been artfully, and carefully composed, with nothing feeling out of place. Nagano knows exactly how to put the right amount of feeling into her vocals, with the “Please” from ‘Please Turn’ striking right through to your heart. Even when she’s not putting power behind her words, whispered lyrics like “All we got are seconds to lose / and all I am is tempted by you”’ carry a sense of poignancy. The girl knows.

Whilst ‘Ritual Union’ feels like it’s quite restrained and toned down, this isn’t the case for some of the other songs on the album. Little Dragon’s penchant for sound effects is occasionally overbearing. ‘Brush The Heat’ is afflicted with an accompanying whistle noise, which very almost ruins the song for me. When I saw Little Dragon at Heaven in May, Yukimi Nagano claimed this was their ‘sexy’ song, but the only time it reaches those heights is when she seductively whispers “brush”, and mostly because that’s when the whistling fades into the background. There are definitely a few other occasions on the album when it feels like the band got carried away with sound effects, and although generally it’s well put together, there are times when it feels a little superfluous, and gimmicky. It’s a shame, because the syncopated vocals and the clickety-clackety cow bell noises of ‘Brush The Heat’ go together perfectly without the extra whistle.

Although the general mood of Ritual Union seems to be on the mournful side, ‘Shuffle a Dream’ and ‘Nightlight’ could be straight out of Machine Dreams. ‘Shuffle A Dream’ is the most respectable form of pop music you could imagine, and it’s also free of some of the more contrived sounds on the other tracks. ‘Nightlight’ is slightly off-kilter, and almost out of key, but that is what makes it so great. These are the pop winners on the album and their light-heartedness offers a contrast to the sadder songs. As Ritual Union draws to a close, the focus seems to be much more on the music of the band, rather than Nagano’s singing. ‘Precious’ is all treacly electronica, with its low down beats and synths, and much of the 6 minutes of ‘When I Go Out’ is along the same lines. Although these track are undoubtedly good, they don’t carry the same immediate punch as songs like ‘Nightlight’.

I don’t want to go so far as to say that Yukimi Nagano doesn’t need the rest of the Little Dragon members to do well, but at the same time her voice is the glue that holds their sound together, and without it Ritual Union would be a ship lost at sea. It feels like Nagano instinctively knows when to keep her voice understated and let the rest of the band do the hard work, and when to take charge of the song. There’s a lot of electronic music doing the rounds at the moment, but Little Dragon have injected theirs with some much-needed soul. This album has some great moments, and whilst as an overall piece it isn’t quite up there with Machine Dreams, it’s still pretty damn good.

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