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Little Dragon’s fifth album Season High opens with ‘Celebrate’, a song that appears to be an homage to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lee Lewis’ titanic, electronic pop-soul productions which dominated the mid-80s through to the early 90s. In particular it seems hungry to imitate the work of the Jam and Lewis’ definitive front woman, Janet Jackson. It ticks lots of the appropriate sonic boxes including whispered announcements (‘it’s your birthday’) and Oriental synth motives, but doesn’t come close to either creating something new or worthy, if considered solely as a nostalgic tribute. It’s Season High‘s most disingenuous moment and nothing else here sounds like it. There are some good moments here, admittedly, but Little Dragon have always struggled to make their tasteful music sound compelling, encouraging full attention with a desire to repeat-play.
Season High is a short, 10-track album. There is no sense of the Gothenburg-based band having a plan for how the album might sound as a whole and sonically this presents challenges which are hard to shake off. Over their career Little Dragon have, often brilliantly, veered between a lush and mid-tempo trip-hop groove, considered by many to be their successful signature sound, and more experimental, electronic pop. Lead singer Yukimi Nagona has a recognisable and soothing soul voice and has been heard on so many collaborations that it’s hard to remember which of these belong to her group and which are credited to another artist. She doesn’t dominate other artists’ recordings, morphing effortlessly into collaborators’ ideas of what they want to project, but this can be unhelpful when it comes to Little Dragon’s own creations.
‘Pop Life’ and ‘Why Should I’ are both minor, odd-ball synth-pop songs that are socially diverting but contain little in the way of a tune. ‘Why Should I’ uses The Pet Shop Boys’ signature keyboard riffs and cuts itself short before anything of note happens and ‘Pop Life’, the better of the two, draws unfortunate comparisons to Robyn’s ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ – borrowing from a far superior, modern pop classic isn’t a particularly smart move unless you can measure up to it significantly. On both of these tracks, Nagona is hard to hear, muffled or sampled to the point of merging with the synths and sequencers and this is a mistake. Little Dragon’s best work has been dependant on her vocal being full-centre and up close, when presented with quality material she wonderfully swells and guides a mood to the point of it becoming a beautiful and strange trance where she appointed pied piper.
Season High pretty much continues in this throwaway vein. Push is a runway song that is a mistake very much in the vein of other runway songs (Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga and Rihanna are proof Little Dragon are in good company here) and Strobe Light is (surprise!) about dancing in a club which disastrously fizzles out just as the chorus arrives. When they finally deliver the good stuff – ‘Butterfly’, ‘Don’t Cry’ and ‘High’ are all broodingly bold with sturdy melodic structures – it’s a case of too little, too late.
Season High is a nice record, a pleasant album to play when you have company round and don’t wish to turn the house upside down or be distracted by music playing in the background. Little Dragon are definitely much more than that. Their 2009 sophomore album, Machine Dreams, may not be faultless but is an immersive and gorgeous collection of weird hymns. Season High is the sound of them running on elegantly detached autopilot.