The last time the Swedish electronic band Little Dragon performed in Charlotte (Nov. 24, 2009 at the Milestone), they didn't exactly play to a full house.
"It was not packed," said Charlotte resident Carla Hough, who attended the show. "There was definitely room to move ... there were people breakdancing in the back. It was that much room."
Now, to be clear, the concert's sparse crowd wasn't because Little Dragon -- made up of singer Yukimi Nagano and musicians Erik Bodin, Fredrik Källgren Wallin and Håkan Wirenstrand -- sucks or anything like that. On the contrary, with two hypnotic CDs (Little Dragon and Machine Dreams) under its belt, rave reviews from countless critics and a legion of fans around the world, the four-person outfit is actually super-duper top-notch.
No, the congregation who came out to see the group groove in the Q.C. was undoubtedly small as a result of two factors. First (in the words of Ed Lover) "C'mon son!" -- this is Charlotte, a city that artists with household names (Jay-Z for example) skip for fear of sluggish ticket sales. So, some up-and-coming quartet from across the sea is going to be swimming upstream a bit in this market. Second, as I stated in this story's first sentence, Little Dragon is an electronic band -- and there's a large contingent of consumers who just have an aversion to what is generally considered electronic music.
Folks who are repulsed by the genre call it cold, computerized, substance-less and ... well ... downright un-musical. And, let's be real: Sometimes those adjectives are right on the money -- especially if you're talking about the fist-pumping brand of techno (or whatever that is) heard on MTV's Jersey Shore, among other craptastic places.
But if that's what detractors call electronic music -- and if that's a reason why some folks wouldn't be caught dead at a show boasting such sonic blasphemy -- please be advised that (before they return to The Milestone for a repeat engagement this week) Little Dragon is on some completely other shit. In fact, the LD crew is part of a wave of musicians (folks like Koop, Tortured Soul and more) responsible for churning out lush, warm, earnest and melodic tunes and, in the process, helping to re-brand electronic music.
The seeds for Little Dragon's fresh sound were, it seems, planted before they officially formed as a group. Nagano and Bodin, who met (along with Wallin) in high school, were, in their early years, fans of American R&B. "Prince is nostalgic for me," Nagano said in an article posted on the Web site Basic Soul in 2007. "I used to listen to him in junior high. He wasn't very cool at the time so I used to keep it a secret, but he will always remain a favorite no matter what! Chaka Khan had a few songs that I would listen to on repeat over and over." (When speaking about today's brand of R&B, however, Nagano says: "I think contemporary R&B feels a bit stuck especially on the commercial side. There seems to be a lot of brilliant vocalists singing kind of bland songs.)
That infatuation with R&B heavily influenced the first crop of songs the band recorded, which, according to the official bio, they describe as "slow" and "sluggish" and eventually "got tired of the sound." By the time they released their first self-titled album in 2007, the members made a conscious decision to, "[let] go of some of those inspirations ... and to create just whatever."
But the damage, so to speak, had been done. Just take a listen to tunes like the pop-centric "Recommendation," the jazz/soul-flavored "Constant Surprises" and the mellow/melancholy "No Love," and -- though powered by laptops -- you can't help to hear bits of the Purple One's "Raspberry Beret" and Chaka's "Pack'd My Bags."
When it came time to record Little Dragon's second CD, Machine Dreams, the band chose to "make some more uptempo songs."
"I think we felt inspired by electronic dance music but also African music and all kinds of other styles we have listened to in the past. Our debut album had more ballads and on Machine Dreams we felt like we wanted to make songs people would want to dance to," Nagano said to Beyond Race Magazine in late 2009.
Still, instead of coming across beat-heavy -- like your garden-variety electronic outfit -- the group churned out a collection of tracks that are both introspective and kinetic. Just try pumping your fist to funky-yet-playful-yet-poetic ditties like "My Step," "Runabout," "Swimming" and "Blinking Pigs" -- all of which are decorated by a whimsical wall of synthesizers and drum machines.
"Feels like you can experiment more with electronic sounds than say a guitar, and I guess we easily dive into that world," says Nagano in a chat with Creative Loafing via the Web. "But we still want to make songs and not just endless beats."
Material from those two projects make great fodder for the band's live performances. "We've grown a lot from playing live," Nagano said in a recent interview with Time Out Chicago. "The songs really take shape when we perform." They've opened for artists like Q-Tip and toured extensively with TV On the Radio.
Oh, and by the way, LD on stage doesn't come off like three dudes and one chick standing behind some MacBooks. Bodin, Wallin and Wirenstrand play honest-to-goodness instruments -- drums, bass guitars and keyboards -- not MP3s. And Nagano has been known to jump about venues, slightly possessed when she's belting out her lyrics. At their Milestone gig a few months ago, Hough recalls, "Yukimi actually came off the stage and was dancing and singing in the crowd."
Sounds good, eh? Admit it ... and then (especially if you skipped it the first go-round) make your way to Tuckaseegee Road this week to partake in all this Little Dragon-ness I've been typing about.
And please leave the glow sticks at home.
Little Dragon will perform at The Milestone on March 21 with VV Brown and DJ George Brazil. Tickets are $10.