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Little Dragon: A Real Big Deal

The New Now

When I first heard "Turn Left" from Little Dragon's eponymous 2007 debut, I was entranced by the haunting MF DOOM-like beat. The strange, sad synths juxtaposed with snappy snares and quirky happy bloop-bleeps combined for a nice way to do a whole lot with a little. But I wasn't sure I was on to a new favorite band until I heard the soulful, vulnerable voice of what I assumed was the group's African-American lead singer. I was pretty sure this girl must have grown up in Philly down the block from Jill Scott, or that Erykah Badu used to come by to babysit her every time she was in town.

But I came to find out that this playful fire-breather, Yukimi Nagano, is straight outta Gothenburg!! And of Swedish-Japanese ancestry!?!? Well, obviously I've got an ear for ethnicity, huh? But was I disappointed? Hardly. In fact, Yukimi became about 10 degrees cooler to me than the coldest Scandanavian winter when I found out that after high school, this crouching tiger was denied entrance to several music schools in her homeland. 

This isn't the first time I've been guilty of this type of musical racial profiling and subsequent confused enchantment, but let's be honest--did you guys know that Esthero was a white girl from Ontario upon first listen? Actually, Esthero is a pretty decent comparison to Little Dragon, because if you like genre-defying, thought-provoking, musically progressive beats and smooth, deep, dope, flowing vocals a la Esthero...then Little Dragon is for you.

Currently touring the U.S. through December 4 in support of their second full-length album, Machine Dreams, Little Dragon deliver their maelstrom of musical radness in the form of a sweet and meaty smorgasbord of synthesizers and a hodgepodge of happy sadness. I was able to catch them on their first night at a small club in Costa Mesa, California, and if you dig their sound, you will extra-dig Yukimi's addictively awkward dance moves and bonkers facial expressions of cute-ferocity when she performs live. The new album trades a bit of soul for electro, but still maintains a nice balance of bump that is ideal for long road trips, late-night chillaxing, or Saturday-night dinner parties at which your friends ask you what the cool background music is and you respond with an exasperated, "Girl! This is the band I've been telling you about for three months!!!"

There is just a ton to like about this band, from the fact that the video for their new single "Swimming" (see above) was illustrated by Yukimi's father, Yusuke Nagano, to the big red beard of keyboard player Hakan Wirenstrand, to the fact that they got their name from Yukimi's penchant for tantrums brought on by creative frustration. And did I mention that she is Japanese-Swedish? Though to be honest, the Swedes have been making major moves in recent years, as acts like the Knife, Miike Snow, Jose Gonzalez, and Lykke Li have been crushing indie competition like an overturned Blazer. It's safe to say Little Dragon have plenty of homeland competition in addition to the semi-insurmountable task of breaking it big in the pop-driven U.S. Machine Dreams, while infectious and very listenable front to back, is hardly made for Billboard. There aren't a ton of stick-with-you hooks, but after a couple listens, you will find yourself humming along with back-to-the-future jams like "Feather," "My Step," and "Fortune." And "Blinking Pigs" and "Runabout" are a nice tempo/strangeness step up for the more seasoned Dragoneer. 

For the uninitiated, it might make sense to go back and get your weight up on first-album gems like "Constant Surprises" or "Forever," which feels like some type of insta-classic that was written by Sade or Erykah. Or perhaps you could help me settle my own mental debate as to whether "After The Rain" is in fact the seminal political protest sendup of the post-Katrina cleanup malaise. The only thing that really throws me off my theory is Yukimi's mention of ice on her window top. The video doesn't provide many obvious clues, but the Cajun tuba and lyrics like "people, what will you do, when your luck turns on you/people, after the rain, will your life ever be the same?"...this song has to be about Katrina, right?  Or is this just a Swedish thang and I'll never understand? However you slice it, it's a keeper.

Little Dragon are in danger of being supremely underhyped in the best way possible.  Here's hoping they only get discovered by your cooler friends, the girl/guy you desperately need to impress, and maybe Andre 3000, RZA, or Daniel Dumile.

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