Friday, January 28, 2011
Better than: Getting fucked by an extraterrestrial? (See paragraph 16.)
How does Little Dragon travel from gig to gig? Well, if you've spent the last few hours prepping for the Swedish band's live show by soaking the contents of your skull in fantastic indie synth-funk stuff like "Twice" and "Feather" and "Blinking Pigs," then it's kinda fun to let your sonically activated imagination drift and dream and distort the edges of reality.
Picture singer Yukimi and her bandmates Erik, Fredrick, and Håkan skipping and slouching through Wynwood under a midnight moon, past abandoned train tracks, through trash-filled empty lots, and over collapsed chainlink fences before popping out of the urban thicket and into the Electric Pickle's ragged backyard garden.
It could be the script for a future music video, so long as the four friends don't get caught by neighborhood dangers like crusty crackheads or roving packs of feral mutts.
Now the real story: Little Dragon's big maroon tour bus was parked at the curb, just outside the Pickle's door. And for the last month, the band's been riding that behemoth, wandering the wintry northern regions of Canada and the U.S., playing shows in places like Fargo, North Dakota and Montreal and NYC -- plus, as Yukimi says, "seeing too much snow."
So last night when the quirked-out quartet finally stepped off the bus and on stage at 12:05 a.m., they were all pretty stoked to see the subtropics. It wasn't especially warm, right around 51 degrees Fahrenheit with curls of cigarette smoke and steam rising off the crowd. But it seems the band's seen shittier weather lately and they were happy to be playing under a clear black sky with jumbo jets cruising low overhead on their way to Miami International Airport. At one point, Yukimi even cooed, "We haven't played outside in a really lo-o-o-ng time."
And so, against a bright green background of 25-foot-tall bamboo fronds, Little Dragon started the set with a slinking, smoky version of "A New" off 2009's Machine Dreams. The kick drum pounded simple triple beats, cymbals shimmered, and a synth-y monotone loomed while Yukimi -- dressed in black tights, black cotton bag dress, a sea blue coat, and a jewel-studded headband -- silently strutted and pirouetted. Then the bass took off on a druggy jag and the singer stepped to the mike, "Kept me, kept and wanting more/I saw you peeking through the door/Blinded like new/I'm feeling much stranger 'bout you."
When the song hushed and died three minutes later, Yukimi greeted her several hundred fans, "Hey, Miami! How you doing tonight? We're Little Dragon. It's our first time." And the crowd cheered back as the band launched into another Machine Dreams track, "Never Never," a quicker, twitchier, poppier jam than the opener.
Bursting into a swirling, psychedelic breakdown punctuated by the refrain "I could never have what you had," the song was a pretty solid synth-pop soul excursion. But it also pointed up a few minor problems that'd linger and reemerge throughout the show.
If you were zonked on psilocybin, everything probably sounded awesome. It probably felt like some kind of groovy sonic god had stuck his fingers inside your ears to massage your brain's pleasure center. But for the more-or-less sober types (like, um, show reviewers), Yukimi's vocals were drenched in a little too much reverb and buried a little too deep in the mix. Her singing was sweet and sharp. But she just couldn't cut through the trippy haze like she does in the recorded songs.
For a moment, though, the minor mix problems didn't really matter, because the next cut was -- as Yukimi told the audience -- a "new one" called "Little Man." Presumably, we'll get a fully polished version this spring when Little Dragon releases that third studio album, Ritual Union. (In Crossfade's recent interview, Yukimi said: "All the songs are there. It's just waiting to be mastered. We want release it this spring and we can't wait!") But last night's live version of "Little Man" was a sort of skipping torch song, sped up and poppified and built around a bobbing beat.
Yukimi crooned lyrics like "Something wrong with your fire/Something wrong with your soul." She banged a set of tiny plastic gongs outfitted with contact mikes. And she shimmied and jerked her skinny little body. Meanwhile, the band -- Erik, Fredrick, and Håkan -- didn't veer, zigzag, or jam, instead staying locked in a tripped-out, dancey trance straight through to the song's last throb.
After that first brief Ritual Union preview, the crowd gave its thanks for a glimpse of something new with the loudest cheer so far. And then, Little Dragon went back to raiding the Machine Dreams tracklist, jumping into a jazzy take of "Blinking Pigs" that climaxed in a tandem cymbal solo as Yukimi joined Erik behind his drum kit.
Next, the band launched into a ten-minute sci-fi disco trip with electro-funk raver "My Step" and its slightly slower twin, "Looking Glass." The stage was splashed with strobing pink and blue light while Yukimi danced, eyes to the sky as if she were seeking out UFOs. There were synth stabs. There were spacey zaps. There were scorched bass explosions.
And then we got another earful of the unknown. "We're gonna play you guys another one of our new songs," Yukimi said, introducing "Summertearz." "We just jam out to this one. Sometimes it's short. Sometimes it's really long. The chorus is pretty easy and you can sing along if you want to. So do whatever you want! Set your spirit free! Let your hair down!"
Like the other new song, "Little Man," this one was also thudding, repetitive, and trance-like. But instead of reinventing the torch song, "Summertearz" riffs on the field song tradition, juxtaposing Yukimi's bluesy lament with a half-speed tribal techno beat, erratic electronic tinkling, and random synth skronks. Those contact-miked plastic gongs were used for this track too. (Obviously homemade, this instrument didn't figure into any of the older songs. It seems likely the gongs were added to Little Dragon's gear list specifically for the Ritual Union sessions.)
Another interesting note: The "Summertearz" lyrics were pretty minimal, mostly limited to "Ooohh" and "Ohh" and "Uh." And generally, Yukimi stuck to the first two variants, delivering drawn-out and sad groans. Varying her approach, she would then toy with the formula, introducing a call-and-response dynamic by exchanging "Ooohhs" with her bandmates or the crowd. But the use of that third lyrical/vocal variant -- the single syllable "Uh" -- got kinda odd as Yukimi let out restrained, rhythmic moans at something you might call "sex speed." Set to nothing other than those tribal beats, a few bleeps and bloops, and some subtle ambient noise, these moments sounded like the sonic manifestation of what it must feel like to get fucked by an extraterrestrial.
Following the future blues and alien encounters of "Summertearz," Little Dragon got hit with a twinge of nostalgia. Drummer Erik asked the crowd, "Can we play an old song?" And with almost unanimous approval, the band picked out "After the Rain" off its 2007's self-titled debut. It opened with an organ solo and then Yukimi sang ("People, after the rain/Will your life/Will it ever be the same?") before a driving, skittering rhythmic interlude and a last verse.
With virtually no pause, Little Dragon slipped into the first few bars of its next tune, the '80s-tinged electo-pop of Machine Dreams hit "Feather," and the crowd, immediately recognizing it, cheered. While the band floated through the blissed-out ballad's airy intro, Yukimi pulled a giant silk scarf out of nowhere, draping it over her head, miming some kind of private play, and then finally pulling it away from her face to sing. Spooky Theremin-like sounds haunted the depths of the song. Yukimi cooed like a siren. And it all drifted into silence on a whimsical high.
"It's good to see all of you here," Yukimi said. "We're going to play one more song for you guys tonight. Blow these speakers up!" And the band kicked into "Runabout" with its trilling, bird-like flutes and spacey keyboard blasts. Circled by digital drums and bell, Yukimi jogged and dodged in place through red and blue blasts of light. The band jammed through the final minute.
And then Yukimi said bye. "Thank you so much. See you all soon. Best of luck."
No surprise, the crowd called Little Dragon back out. But already 1:12 a.m., it was obvious that this encore would be brief. So even though Yukimi asked, "You guys wanna hear a couple more songs?," we only got a six-minute take of another old cut, "Constant Surprises" while two planned encore songs -- "Swimming" and "Twice" -- got slashed due to the sound curfew.
Once offstage, though, Little Dragon didn't run for that big bus at the curb. And they didn't skip or slouch away through the glittering, ghetto-tastic wonderland of Wynwood. Sure, Yukimi, Erik, Fredrick, and Håkan had to hit the road and somehow make it to Salt Lake City for the next night's scheduled show. But still, they just chilled and hung with the fans for a bit in the Pickle's ragged backyard garden.
The Crowd: Mostly post-millenial, multicultural hipsters in hoodies, leather jackets, cardigans, beards, dreads, shaved heads, tidy afros, and nighttime sunglasses.
Overheard in the Crowd: One dude to another, repeatedly, "I wanna eat cheesecake out of your panties."
Random Detail: Little Dragon's singer Yukimi is one of those strange Swedes who speaks English without any accent at all. She sounds like a girl from some suburban American nowhere. Maybe there's a backstory here?
Little Dragon's Setlist:
-"After the Rain"+
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*New songs that should be part of Little Dragon's impending third album Ritual Union.
+Extra song that wasn't part of Little Dragon's originally planned setlist.
!Listed encore songs not played due to sound curfew.