Review: Little Dragon, Nabuma Rubberband

Little Dragon's fourth LP, Nabuma Rubberband, is exquisitely stylish but ultimately empty.
Little Dragon Nabuma Rubberband

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

That Little Dragon’s commercial successes have come from collaborations – with Gorillaz, Big Boi, SBTRKT, and network television – speaks volumes about their music. The Swedish quartet is, first and foremost, an extremely stylish band. They flaunt a thoroughly studied syllabus of influences impressive in its breadth (even if Stereolab and Broadcast hit all these points already), encompassing the tasteful and the kitschy with an omnivorous concern for appearances – trip-hop, lounge jazz, R&B, and 1980s synthpop are their regular ingredients, and their standard demeanor is “cool.” It’s all exceptionally curated, very mannered and attractive. It is also sterile. When Little Dragon fold jazz into their compositions, they turn to the world of lounge music, a cartoon version of jazz with all the heat, danger, and human feeling siphoned out of it. Basically, Little Dragon sound a tad clockwork, which isn’t to say their music is wholly without charm. Indeed, on a sonic level, fourth LP Nabuma Rubberband is exquisite – there’s an undeniable pleasure to hearing the instruments recorded so perfectly, everything arranged in all the right places. But there’s an overt polish here, a plastic aloofness, a sense that there’s relatively little going on under Little Dragon’s surface besides technique. They make cool, pretty, quirky, entertaining music that’s missing a human factor.

Perhaps for this reason, critical attention tends to focus on lead singer Yukimi Nagano, who ostensibly provides just that element. Her voice is gorgeous, but like the soundscapes she and her bandmates generate, it is also exceedingly polite. When she lets loose and makes her much-cited debt to R&B singers most evident – as on  “Killing Me,” when she scoffs, “I’ll take my rocketship and get the hell outta this, nothing that I’m gonn’ miss” – she has a rehearsed, imitative quality; the breaks in her voice sound deliberately timed and hyper-controlled. Ultimately, even the lyrics that are ostensibly the most emotional become flat placeholders when given to the technically proficient Nagano.

The best way to listen to Nabuma Rubberband, then, is to give up on emotional engagement with the music, and even on typical pop talking points like melody. The most exciting thing happening here – as on Little Dragon’s previous records, from which, it must be said, this one does not deviate or develop in any noteworthy way – continues to be the band’s sense of rhythm and the range of instrumental they deploy to bring those rhythms to life. Most of Little Dragon’s collaborative efforts have essentially sounded like guest spots for Nagano’s vocals, but where the band excels is in its percussion (provided by Nagano and drummer Erik Bodin). The rhythm tracks here are genuinely unpredictable, shifting between instruments and styles even more often than between tempos. The most fully formed track here, “Only One,” is a gorgeous, drifting slow jam livened by subtly jittery percussion until a harsh four-on-the-floor beat bursts out of the increasingly massive wall of sound and shoves the whole track into nastier territory in its final moments, preparing the way for the gnarled metallic keyboards of “Killing Me.” “Pretty Girls” accomplishes a nifty trick by dressing its refrain in staccato keyboards that function almost percussively, brushing up tensely against the meditative greyscale of its foundational drum machines.

Opener “Mirror” is almost structureless, a minimal setup that puts the vocals in the spotlight, but the real magic lies in the percussion, which almost never repeats itself as it provides colorful emotional accents to Nagano’s pleasant, bland vocals. Though “Mirror” lacks a hook or even energy, it still makes for Nabuma Rubberband’s most interesting cut, because it plays to the band’s strengths, which have everything to do with technique and presentation. There are many attractive details strewn about Nabuma Rubberband – when “Underbart” gets going about halfway through, it’s the album’s most lushly immersive song, and the brittle synth chords that function like punctuation on the second verse of single “Klapp Klapp” are truly inspired, for example. But none of these ideas can sustain a whole song. Fine work like “Mirror,” “Pretty Girls,” “Underbart,” and “Only One” reward close scrutiny but don’t do much to inspire that scrutiny in the first place. Most of the time, Nabuma Rubberband sounds well put-together but empty, all style and no content, the kind of album that won’t offend you while you’re listening to it but which you’d be hard-pressed to remember any of once closer “Let Go” comes to an end. C