I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Sweden has been producing a ton of great new bands lately. So many, in fact, that I’m inclined to agree with Chris Richards of the Washington Post when he recently declared Sweden as the epicenter of emergent pop music for the new century. Lucky for DC music fans then that our city seems to be one of the friendliest frontiers for Swedish music in the United States. DC is virtually guaranteed a tour date from most of the Swedish invasion acts because we always give them a very warm reception. One of the finest examples of the new wave of Swedish pop is Little Dragon, who played a phenomenal set to a sold out Black Cat on Saturday night.
I personally discovered Little Dragon right before last year’s Coachella Music Festival. It was there that I opted to get acquainted with this quirky, electro-pop band on a side stage rather than ride the wave over to LCD Soundsystem on the main stage.* The performance Little Dragon delivered at Coachella was a breathtaking mix of beauty, grace, and fun. Their slightly odd tempo, electronic cabaret performance in the middle of the California desert in the middle of the night was captivating in the fullest sense of the word. It was probably one of the best festival performances I have ever seen. Since then I have seen Little Dragon’s adorable lead singer Yukimi Nagano perform stellar duets with Damon Albarn on the Gorillaz “Escape to Plastic Beach Tour” and my school-boy crush on her has continued to grow. In the meantime I have been pouring over Little Dragon’s two albums and anxiously awaiting their forthcoming third. Luckily they did not keep us waiting for the new album to treat the U.S. to some winter tour dates.
Like most of the Swedish pop acts flooding our shores, Little Dragon’s music is not easy to describe. This is part of what makes most of these bands sound so fresh and/or weird. The best way I can describe it is as off-kilter pop music. Little Dragon deliver glitchy, jazzy, bass heavy, synth music fronted by vocals that swing a range from playful to mournful. It is noodling, twitchy music that somehow contains great soul and undeniable dance propulsion. On sound alone, it would be easy to lump Little Dragon in with the chillwave (bedroom electronic) scene; but for the fact that they are a full band who write mutant pop that is equally capable of sucking the air out of a room with its quiet power or swelling up to epic wall of electro-sound proportions with its relentless party percussion. At the Black Cat, Little Dragon demonstrated their full spectrum by following moments that reduced the crowd into hushed reverence with gigantic dance party sounds that had the most of the audience jumping up and down in unison.
The set list on Saturday night was constructed mainly with songs from Little Dragon’s 2009 album ‘Machine Dreams’. It was on this album that the band really found their sound. The band stretched the second half of the song “Fortunes” into an epic percussion versus synths battle that featured Yukimi teaming up on the drum-kit pounding on cymbals like mad along with the drummer. The song “My Step” began as the sonic high-point of the night but quickly derailed due to a synth-bass technical problem. Yukimi explained that this is what occasionally happens when they insist on performing every part of every song completely live. The band got back on track after about 5 minutes though. When they restarted “My Step” from the top, we all showed our appreciation for their non-programmed, live playing by dancing our tails off. During the encore, “Swimming” morphed into a dance juggernaut that whipped the crowd into a frenzy after Yukimi told the crowd that it was Saturday night and they had no excuse for not dancing.**
The band debuted two new songs; one in the first half of the set and the other much later.*** As much as I have come to adore Little Dragon’s existing music, it was the two new songs that had me totally captivated on Saturday night. Both promise great things for a band that seems to be getting better and better. Both songs featured grandiose sonic landscapes that incorporated Yukimi’s vocals like an instrument. Her cooing and whispers swirled around in the mix of the new songs, surfacing only occasionally to deliver an abbreviated verse. To quote a friend of mine hearing the songs for the first time along with me, “I’ve already bought that album in my mind.”
Little Dragon went back to their first album sparingly on Saturday night, but each time they did it made for a great moment. I was sort of amazed to hear most of the audience loudly singing along with the song “Constant Surprises”.**** Perhaps my favorite tune performed off of their self-titled debut was ‘Twice’. After the dance fury of the second half of Little Dragon’s set, this down-tempo number was an excellent choice for the closing song. Its spare keyboard melody, underwater bass-line, and the beautiful purity of Yukimi’s voice sent us peacefully out into the night.
* The right choice – I eventually saw LCD Soundsystem’s truly epic set at Virgin FreeFest later that summer; a set that everyone who saw LCD at both Coachella and FreeFest insists was the better show.
** Her challenge was a tad unnecessary, Little Dragon had been seriously moving bodies all night by that point.
*** The second new song was called ‘Summer Tears’. I did not catch the name of the first new song.
**** Where does this get played? I want to go there.