Review Summary: Reflective, energetic, and content in equal measure
The common thread that links every Little Dragon record is the relationship between the organic and the electronic. Accompanying the fluttering synthesizers and clattering machinery is the omnipresence of Yukimi Nagano’s soulful vocal gymnastics, and vice versa. Many will tell you that Nagano is the heartbeat of every Little Dragon record, but they also forget how important the other members are in regards to anchoring her incredible performances. We know she can hold her own when pitted against other artists, as her guest work with Gorillaz and SBTRKT have proven, but it’s safe to say that she seems most at home with her main project. As such, there have been fascinating little progressions and developments with each new record; in fact, it’s strange to consider how organic and even orchestral Little Dragon’s 2007 debut was when you know where they are now with the downtempo and chill-out elements of their sound. That evolution becomes even more special when you find out that there have been no lineup changes to date; this is the same group of people who formed all the way back in 1996 when they used to jam A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul records together in the studio. Well, it’s been over a decade since that debut, so where do we find these four musicians in 2017? Much more chilled, but still dancing.
At its softest and slowest, Season High
is incredibly relaxing and absorbing. It’s the musical equivalent of laying in your bed and taking in the nuances of everything you see in your room. It’s the equivalent of laying on a grassy hill and taking in the movement of the clouds across the vast sky. The synthesizers that Fredrik Wallin and Hakan Wirenstrand provide here are dark and glassy-eyed, but repetitive and hypnotic enough that they could leave one in a bit of a trance. I love how sexy and sensual these guys can make cold electronica music sound, especially in soulful ballads like “High” or the elaborately textured excursion “Butterfly.” This mood also extends to the phenomenal “Don’t Cry,” which combines Nagano’s high-pitched vocal performance with a deep chasm of bass notes and cascading waves of keyboard effects feeding the treble end. Also worth noting is the lengthy closer “Gravity,” which simply revels in its drowning you in countless layers of effects and percussion methods. That, and Nagano’s incredible vocal harmonies. It can be overwhelming and even numbing after a while, but these lurid vistas are worth exploring when they’re so picturesque and inviting. For a group who have been so skilled at adding touches of tension and anxiety in their work (particularly in the Ritual Union
era) Season High
probably finds Little Dragon at their most comfortable and satisfied yet. That’s not to say they don’t experiment, because there are still plenty of interesting twists and turns, but they constantly worm them around a place that’s more… content
With that said, at its hardest and fastest, Season High
is very fun and energetic. In fact, opener “Celebrate” is a very appropriate way to begin this collection - nimble and light, and sounding like as much of a party as its title suggests. The low choir effects add just enough weight and variety to keep things interesting, and Yukimi’s voice is a bit more forceful in the verses. Go a bit deeper in the tracklisting, and you’ll find some fantastic bangers here; most notable are the house-influenced pulsing rhythms of “The Pop Life” and the bass-boosted synthpop of “Sweet,” as well as the intricately-woven bass/drum mix in “Should I.” Drummer Erik Boden shines a lot in that last one in particular, providing a much more complex arrangement and performance to a relatively straightforward track. The only moment on this album that really brings more of an anxious or conflicted tone is the song “Push,” which is built around a chromatic synth-driven beat that’s complemented by Nagano’s odd vocal bursts in the chorus (“PUUUSH! PUUUSH!”). It comes as a nice little surprise near the end of the record to throw you off. But for the most part Season High
does come off as a bit safe, and perhaps that’s its biggest hindrance. This won’t be considered any sort of risk or victory lap for Little Dragon, and it marks the smallest leap yet for the group as far as sonic and stylistic shifts are concerned. Still, that’s not going to stop me from discrediting what Season High
does well. It may be their safest album, but it’s also one of their finest from a songwriting standpoint. It provides a strong continuation of their downtempo soul sound while fine-tuning the dance-pop elements to match the quality of their stellar slow moments.