February 1, 2013 3 comments
Three years can seem like an eternity for the type of band that Local Natives has become. Beloved for being quintessentially indie and all things alt/chamber-pop, the LA quartet hasn’t done a great deal to grease the hype motor that tends to circulate relatively new bands through the quotidian cogs of modern music media. Instead, Local Natives have toured, stayed quiet, done select festivals and pop up shows, gone back to seclusion, worked on this follow up (in an indeterminate period of time), and then showed up, seemingly out of nowhere, with a brand new body of work. Whereas their 2009 debut, Gorilla Manor, had the feel of a band wearing their influences as armor to protect against creative stagnation, Hummingbird seems like the product of that fastidious, exhaustive process that followed their breakthrough introduction.
Right off the bat, Hummingbird transports the listener into the rustic, ethereal musical realm that very few bands have a knack for evoking. Opener “You & I” carries a refrain of “oh”‘s and “ah”‘s into a gorgeous, soaring coda that follows the lead of vocalist Kelcey Ayer in strong falsetto. The band rounds out the accompaniment in fulfilling fashion here, with drummer Matt Fraizer’s cadence proving why he might be the group’s most underrated asset. Triumphant seems nearly too miniscule an adjective to equate this to and, as a pacemaker, it’s echoing atmosphere nails the tone with knife-like precision. It’s all very pretty.
The “prettiness”, though, quickly became my main issue with this LP as a whole going forward. Hummingbird is a good record, by any standard, but the grit and vigor that weren’t fully realized (but still palpable) in previous tracks like “Airplanes”, “Camera Talk”, and “Sun Hands” can seem a bit phoned-in here, with Local Natives almost doing their best Local Natives impression. First single, “Breakers”, tries for this expansive, orchestral feel, but comes off more cacophonous than deftly arranged. The same clash of ideas results in one elongated shortcoming with “Wooly Mammoth”; a song that could really benefit from some melody filtering and more patience in the rhythm section. Slight flashes of this disconnect come up elsewhere on the album, as Local Natives tend to reach for the highest highs with every track when, what’s most powerful about their sound, is often compositional variation and conceptual contrast.
Luckily, Hummingbird endures, and, despite my initial cynicism, the album does have it’s fair share of genuinely stunning moments. Early on, we get follow-up single, “Heavy Feet”, which I have no issue naming one of Local Natives’ greatest accomplishment (if not, their best) to date. The rolling drums, the blaring chorus, the tasteful harmony and some buildup in the verses that accentuates the climaxes; all crucial to encapsulating just how stunning this record can be. Notable of this track (and, in turn, the climate of the album) is that the bass hasn’t suffered in aptitude or prominence, even with the departure of bassist Andy Hamm nearly two years ago.
That low end prowess shows itself on another highlight, “Black Spot”, which floats on a choppy, staccato piano riff that lays the platform for Rice to slip back into his upper register, and guitarist, Ryan Hahn, (in rare form lately, simply by being more restrained and precise) to drive the mid-song crescendo. Much of what Local Natives accomplishes here follows the formula of “grow and collapse”, placing major chords in key melodic positions and dissipating into minor intervals (often where harmonies aren’t present.) That tactic would become stale quickly in less experimental hands, (Coldplay comes to mind) but these guys keep things fresh often enough to sustain it.
That chemistry and interplay between the four principal members of this band is what warded off much of my distaste with the inveterate grandiosity. A slow burning album cut like “Ceilings” should be a speed bump in the already equable pace, but, because it’s so tentatively performed, every little inflection and chord change feels like a new taste cleansing the palate of the previous. “Three Months” benefits from this same type of treatment, with light, celestial guitar plucks and step-for-step piano cushioning Ayer’s, once again, cogent falsetto, as he croons “I am ready to feel you” to what might as well be a nimbus cloud. Rather than the focus being solely substantial, this band has altered its focal point to technique, basing many of their most powerful moments on how the notes are being played, as opposed to the notes themselves. It’s a shift that, while attracting some intrinsic pomposity, has matured them far beyond the central nucleus of Gorilla Manor.
For as overblown as it can be — and yes, this thing can get ham-fisted and cheesy in an instant (“Colombia”, “Mt. Washington”) — there’s a clear sign of growth and evolution on Hummingbird that is promising in light of the superfluous theatrics. Do they still wear their influences like a protective, indie-rock shawl? Sure. There’s plenty of Grizzly Bear, plenty of Fleet Foxes, plenty of Bon Iver, you name it; but the one facet that seals off this comparative rabbit hole is that there’re still cracks in the voice of the impressionist that is Local Natives. Hummingbird isn’t perfect, but that, in the long run, will eventually save it from becoming unremarkable.
Local Natives – Mt. Washington Lyrics
Local Natives – Wooly Mammoth Lyrics
Local Natives – Bowery Lyrics
Local Natives – Three Months Lyrics
Local Natives – Black Spot Lyrics
Local Natives – Colombia Lyrics
Local Natives – You & I Lyrics
Local Natives – Heavy Feet Lyrics
Local Natives – Breakers Lyrics