Sumie Nagano plays a spare and delicate folk music, her fingers tracing spidery guitar patterns that circle one chord and then another, her voice cutting clean through a sparkling silence. She sounds a bit like Linda Perhacs if you can imagine her without the occasional blues slide, or perhaps somewhat akin to Sharon Van Etten, though more remote and less vulnerable.
The person she does not sound like, at all, is her sister Yukimi Nagano, who shades the electro-pop of Little Dragon with stylized R&B cools and trills. Little Dragon is all stylish pose and posture. Sumie, by contrast, brings almost no artifice to this self-titled debut. She uses no vibrato, indulges in no surface emoting, refuses to belt and declines, even, the drama of a well-placed stage whisper. Sumie merely sings, hitting the notes crisply and exactly. Her guitar playing has the same distilled clarity, each note plucked and rounded and left to hang, nothing fancy like bends or pull-offs or hammer-ons.
The lucidity of Sumie’s delivery contrasts with the foggier quality of her lyrics, which live at the intersection of “imagistic and nonlinear” and “makes no sense at all.” She is, after all, native to Sweden; perhaps English is not a comfortable language. What exactly can you make of a line like “Hold me down/from my diamond nights/the sand pours down/and it spells you” anyway? And what exactly, in later songs, would a “sailor friend” or a “show talked window” be?
Oddly enough, Sumie’s best lyrics — in her best song overall — consider the limits of communication, even between two people who are in love. “You say that I’m amazing/yet you don’t know what I do/you fold my words to hold them/until they sound like you,” she sings, before heading into the syllable stretching, octave leaping closure of “Sloo-oo-oow-ly I speed into.”
The thing is that, however pleasing Sumie’s crystalline voice may be, however inviting her soft, minimal arrangements, people come to this type of music for meaning. Too often, it seems like the singer is leading us into blind alleys, stringing words together willy-nilly on bead chains, then scattering them like sparkling baubles in a heap. How about telling us a story next time?
DOWNLOAD: “Speed Into” “Later Flights”