Caught Live: Little Dragon @ The Button Factory, Dublin
Just over a year ago, Little Dragon performed at Dublin's Crawdaddy to an audience of not much more than a dozen punters. This evening, by contrast, having initially been booked to play that same small venue once again, the Swedes find themselves in a Button Factory that's as packed as your reviewer can ever remember seeing it. The band will presumably be sending a grateful Christmas card or two Damon Albarn's way – since their appearance on the last Gorillaz album (their two co-written contributions ranking among Plastic Beach’s highlights) their profile has soared to occasionally silly levels.
But it hasn't simply been a case of hitching a ride on the Blur man's coattails: previous albums Little Dragon (2007) and Machine Dreams ('09) – along with a history of wisely-chosen collaborations (frontwoman Yukimi Nagano, in particular, has shared studio time with José González and SBTRKT, among others, in recent times) – haven't done them any harm at all in the popularity stakes; nor, judging by that NME Cool List mention as well as the number of lovesick, Movember-'tachioed indie boys in tonight's crowd, have Nagano's striking Scandinasian looks and playful eccentricity.
Ritual Union, the Gothenburg natives' third LP from earlier this year, however, represents an undeniable turning-point for the band - the record that's finally brought them close to the precipice marked mainstream popularity. A continuation of LD’s shift away from the eclectic and often jazzy arrangements seen on that self-titled debut towards a more cohesive and (dare we say it) accessible sound, the album utilises rhythm as its central force around which the band weave their quirky synthesis of soul, R&B, pop and jazz - to frequently stunning effect.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of this evening's set is drawn from that breakthrough long-player, and the band’s treatment of their material bears all the hallmarks of many years' experience. Much like Caribou, this is a band who've spent the last half a decade refining the tricky art of crafting layered headphones music that also caters for the needs of adrenalised festival crowds. While on record, therefore, much of Ritual Union possesses a sparse, dreamy feel that may require several listens to get to grips with, its live incarnation sees the songs' rhythmic elements being foregrounded to the point that several of tonight's cuts feel like extended disco edits of the original album versions.
Each track, from the LP's eponymous lead single to other highlights like 'Brush The Heat' and 'Shuffle A Dream', tonight rides a consistently rock-solid metronomic groove, with each of the five band members – including recently-returned touring keyboardist Arild Werling – deftly adding layers of beats and textures, both digital and analogue, to the mix. And speaking of keyboards, the extravagantly-bearded Håkan Wirenstrand stands impassively over his bank of synths like a missing (Viking) member of Kraftwerk, while Nagano confidently claims centre stage, often taking advantage of the instrumental breaks to bash a drum pad or cowbell. Again, the constant equation seems to be that more rhythm equals more good times, and it’s one that proves hard to refute as the gig wears on.
A dramatic finale sees the band segue from the heady, polyrhythmic climax of Machine Dreams cut 'Blinking Pigs' into 'Twice', the gorgeously soulful and otherworldy opener from their self-titled debut. It's an ending that also serves as a reminder – as if one were needed after a show this good – of the depth of talent at this band's disposal. The only real surprise is how long it's taken the record-buying public to discover Little Dragon's roar.