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The factors that determine our musical preferences – Little Dragon’s Ritual Union

August 12, 2011

Every other episode of No Reservations features a conversation between host Anthony Bourdain and a chef from that edition’s locale. These interactions always involve one specific question – do you remember?

Here’s a pause…

A few more seconds…

If you guessed “Can I buy insurance to cover the future breakage from cameraman Todd’s awesomely-real close-ups?”, you’d be right, but the attorneys handle that issue off-screen. The correct answer is “Can you describe to me what you want to be served during your last meal?” Without fail, these chefs (and Bourdain) provide the same basic answer to this inquiry. Is it a tasting menu at Le Bernardin or Per Se? How about a four-course ride through El Bulli? Nope – while the cuisines vary wildly, the dinner they seek is the food of their youth, or so-called “comfort” food. While my dining choices do not fall within this paradigm (I was a notoriously picky and fearful eater until my 20s), after conversations with many of my friends, I’ve noticed that many of us may be pre-determined to like a song because it reminds us of the tunes that originally brought us towards interest in music. In other words, we naturally gravitate towards musical comfort-food. Now, I am not specifically speaking of overt revivalism, such as the wave of bands influenced by Joy Division and Velvet Underground that broke onto the scene in 2002-2004, nor intentional nostalgia acts like County Fair cover bands or the UK’s fine entry into the genre, The Darkness (My metal phase went directly from Cheese like Def Leppard and Quiet Riot to Prog & Thrash like Metallica and Rush, bypassing “hair” entirely – hence, the Darkness sounded like a new band to me). I speak of the elements of a new song that recall past faves subliminally, either by utilization of similar chord progressions, drum patterns or vocal harmony arrangements. Whether or not a new band is aping the style of a childhood favorite, the utilization of similar musical components can serve as the police escort straight to the cerebral cortex.

Which leads to this question: when I like newer songs, is it because I think they are “good”, or because of their ability to re-channel positive memories and associations? This month, I became aware of the record Ritual Union by a Swedish group called Little Dragon, which was described by Pitchfork’s Matthew Perpetua (indication of his fandom for classic Gill-created typefaces or a real name? I’m torn) as such:

“Their rhythms are dry and metronomic; their synthesizers either provide a distant ambiance or seem to glow like neon lights that flicker in time with the beat. Frontwoman Yukimi Nagano’s phrasing touches on conventions of modern– particularly British– iterations of R&B, but errs on the side of aloof understatement.”

This read like a Swedish twist on Ladytron, so I had to investigate. In addition, I learned that Little Dragon was featured on TV On the Radio member David Sitek’s Maximum Balloon record (“If You Return”), and two tracks from the 2010 Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. So I obtained these tunes, and found (reviewer cliché alert) what would result if Ladytron’s lineup included 1996-era Aaliyah and 1983-era Jellybean Benitez, with Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra as co-producers. In other words, it was pretty damn awesome.

Two of the most influential sounds from my early years were Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” and that super-round synth sound that accompanied every production credit that followed a program on public television (lovingly lampooned here). Ritual Union’s “Shuffle a Dream” employs both of these so superbly, I can almost see the befuddled look on my second-grade teacher’s face as I explain to her (yet again) that I’ve forgotten my permission slip for the off-campus outing. On “If You Return”, the combination of synth chord progressions (i/VII/iv/III/VII/i/V) and vocal melody (“Point of No Return” by Expose or “Catch Me I’m Falling” by Pretty Poison) with the beats of Whodini and/or the Boogie Boys, and I’m the 12-year-old runt wandering around the parking lot of my sisters’ high school, eschewing the football game to shoot hoops with groups of (what Brits would call) Southern California chavs, as they would ask “Oooh, you think that’s a good song, myne, have you heard these one, myne? Cheeeeck eet oout! Lakers, dude, this ees our year!” As long as I was knocking down my jumper, I was welcome.

Either way, great records, all of ’em.

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