It seemed fitting for the Swedish synth-pop band Little Dragon to kick off the Natural History Museum’s First Fridays series last week. If you wanted to stuff and mount a specimen of today’s tasteful, adventurous-enough indie electronica for posterity, the band would do nicely.
Little Dragon, a quartet fronted by the beguiling vocalist Yukimi Nagano, hits an evocative sweet spot of laptop noodling, Motown bass grooves and the expertly fussy percussion of Erik Bodin. By the band’s 2009 album, “Machine Dreams,” its members had become skilled at so many small things that collaborators from Gorillaz to José González came calling. But one thing Little Dragon is not good at is the big gesture — the hook to level an arena, the crescendo that moves feet against their will. And in a reverb-saturated setting such as the Natural History Museum, sometimes even its little moments felt a bit lost.
The band became a favorite of KCRW’s audience on the strength of singles such as “Feather” and “Blinking Pigs.” Each pairs interlocking elements such as fat Moog synthesizer bounces, jungle-quick drumming and opiated atmospheres to support Nagano’s vocals, which can feel embittered and searching all at once. On record, it’s performed with total control and restraint, and if it sometimes sits like background music, well, so much the better for one’s background.
The problem comes when it has to command your attention. The hard-surfaced museum is a tough room for any band (and artists rarely have to compete with okapis and servals for a crowd’s loyalty). But it’s particularly hard on bands such as Little Dragon, for which a well-timed flitter of a synthesizer can make a tune sail or sag. Foundational elements, such as the band’s slinkily soulful bassist, Fredrick Källgren, made it through the fog. But Little Dragon needs precision to win you over.
Still, parts worked. The robotic girl-group jitters of “Never Never” had unexpected venom that made the rainy-day ballad feel scared and angry. The rolling piano lament “Twice,” appropriately deployed on “Grey’s Anatomy,” wound up the set with a moody set piece both comely and lonely.
The band is absolutely meticulous and curator-minded about its sound, but one couldn’t help but wish for at least one window-busting noise squall or a tribal drum breakdown to suggest the possibility of something feral. Little Dragon is capable of it — newer singles such as “Stranger” lean toward groaning dubstep basses and little barbed arpeggios, and the band’s contributions make “Empire Ants” the best song on Gorillaz’s new album, “Plastic Beach.” But Nagano & Co. have to find a way to check their own micromanagement at the stage door. The museum’s rooms of ferocious taxidermied beasts seemed apt — these were creatures meant to draw blood, but instead are left arranged behind glass.
-- August Brown
Photos: Yukimi Nagano performs with her synth-pop band, Little Dragon, on Friday. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times. Check out more photos of the Little Dragon concert at the Natural History Museum.