THEY MAY NOT BE the most obvious exemplars of the trend, but Little Dragon are as much a harbinger of the coming '90s revival as Wavves or Surfer Blood. They're just working with a different definition of "the '90s" than that decade has come to connote. When we think of '90s bands, we tend to go straight to grunge or alt-rock institutions, but also caught up in the whole "alternative" movement were a whole bunch of weird bands that used forgotten pop styles of the '60s as tools for creation. Groups like Stereolab, Cibo Matto, and Man or Astro-Man? took compositional elements from soft rock, pop-jazz, space rock, and lounge, and fused them with punk tendencies and a DIY outlook to create a strange new sound-world of blips, reverb, and electronic noise.
Though Little Dragon doesn't emerge from the same scenes those bands did—they're from Sweden—they nevertheless seem to represent the most concrete manifestation of those groups' influence. The time is right for a soft-rock revival, given the success of groups like Phoenix and the increasing prominence of dance-pop elements in indie music. Little Dragon's music initially fits into those tendencies, and the steady electro beat on "My Step" (off 2009's fantastic Machine Dreams) signals something like Robyn or Vampire Weekend. But they're ultimately interested in doing something more obtuse, something denser and twistier but also smaller. The band's affinity for synth noise would put them in league with LCD Soundsystem if they had any interest in epic jams, while their hazy outlook might make them like Flying Lotus if Little Dragon didn't seem fundamentally aligned with some form of pop.
Which is why you have to reach back to groups like Stereolab to really describe what Little Dragon sounds like. You hear it in the music, certainly: Check out the noisy synth solo at the end of "Swimming," or the phased buzz in the intro of "Runabout" that hearkens back to "Brakhage," the opening of Stereolab's own Dots and Loops. But you hear it, too, in the alto voice and adventurous melodies of singer Yukimi Nagano, which find a place in the music similar to the way Stereolab vocalists Laetitia Sadier and the late Mary Hansen effortlessly slid rounded, rich notes into dense piles of sound.
Given this heritage it's not surprising that once-and-future Blur maestro Damon Albarn collaborated with them on a number of tracks for his most recent Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. Aside from their one-album turn to the alt-rock/grunge sound (1997's self-titled album), Blur actively resisted the tyranny of rocking and eagerly worked Stereolabian influences into their sound, from the disco of "Girls & Boys" to the organs and horns of 1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish. It surely must gall Albarn that, despite the fact that he more than any other '90s star has managed to thrive in the new decade, Blur's vision of pop has largely been forgotten.
Little Dragon brings those sounds back while using the aughts' embrace of electropop and R&B production styles to forge new directions. My favorite Little Dragon song, "Feather," manages to sound like the Neptunes, Ladytron, and Aaliyah all at once. More than mere revivalists, Little Dragon is looking firmly to the future.