Change manifests itself in different ways; for some, it makes a nearly undetectable impact, while, for others, it can spur transformation and growth. The latter is true for Los Angeles-based quintet-turned-quartet, Local Natives and their sophomore record, Hummingbird, due out on January 29th via Frenchkiss Records.
Following the howling success of the band’s exuberant debut album, Gorilla Manor, in 2009, Hummingbird offers a darker perspective on a familiar sound, both lyrically and sonically. The record is fraught with themes of uncertainty, doubt and loss, but it is seasoned with the signature sounds that Local Natives seemingly patented from the day they pressed and packaged Gorilla Manor.
In the midst of a personal loss for Kelcey Ayer and the band’s separation from bassist and founding member Andy Hamm, Local Natives made the move from the West Coast to the East to record Hummingbird in the home of musician and producer, Aaron Dessner, whose influence on the record is evident, to say the least.
The Local Native’s “Colombia” (live)
Instead of leaning on the compounded crescendos that made Gorilla Manor so successful, the band’s energy is tempered and the ever-layered instruments subdued. This shift from resounding sound to refined art is reminiscent of the melancholic calling card of Dessner’s band, The National. The subject matter of the record is also heavier than the last, and it launches Local Natives to a level of emotional intelligence and vulnerability that wasn’t quite achieved on Gorilla Manor.
The album’s opener, “You & I,” sets a dark tone – one that remains consistent throughout each of Hummingbird’s eleven tracks. Ayer takes the lead on vocals, which loads the song with troughs and triumphs (his voice is, at times, affecting, but often strained, and certainly not as strong or emotive as Taylor Rice’s). In some ways, the strain suits the song, though, as Ayer laments the uncertainties that accompany maturation, singing, “The closer I get/ The farther I have to go/ To places we don’t know/ To places we don’t know.” The song sets the stage with a distinct air of vulnerability as Ayer grapples with the large themes of identity and direction, but it ends decisively with a powerful strike of the drum by Matt Frazier. “Heavy Feet” then begins to sketch out a path for the steady incline of the record as the band experiments with sparser instrumentation and more artful use of the mid-song-pause. Like the heavy emotions that the song addresses, “Heavy Feet” comes in waves, pausing and pouring, preening and pulsing. It’s on this track that it becomes clear that the band is slowly learning how to employ subtlety, even if it’s not entirely effective at the outset.
Local Natives’ “Ceilings”
On the heels of “Heavy Feet” comes an opening riff on “Ceilings” that isn’t a total departure from the band’s familiar sound, but certainly an evolved version. It is an honest track that addresses human flaws and self-consciousness, but the hypnotic lyrics work in concert with the carefully timed pendulum of instrumentation, which swings back-and-forth between clear guitar picking and textured drums and strums. It belongs so conspicuously to Local Natives, but it also reveals a new reverence for patience and refinement. The hypnotic spell is quickly broken by the tense piano strokes that introduce “Black Spot,” the most raw and nervous song on the record.
The first single off of Hummingbird, “Breakers,” is both distinct and infectious; a wonderful choice for a first single, but a misleading representative of the record as a whole. The liveliness that gave Gorilla Manor its legs shines through on the song, but disappears for the majority of the record.
Where Dessner’s influence becomes unmistakably obvious is in “Mt. Washington,” which could very well belong on a National record. The heartbeat of a kick drum and the tonality of the song are elements that are so deeply rooted in the tradition of The National’s work, and it’s both exciting and confusing to hear Local Natives try their hand at that type of track. In an interview with KCRW in Santa Monica earlier this year, Ryan Hahn explained that Dessner “was like this older brother in a lot of ways, just offering his sage advice.” That influence (and brotherly reverence) is epitomized in the simplistic beauty of the track. The strength of “Mt. Washington” is quickly overshadowed, however, as the record nears its end and “Colombia” arrives.
By far the strongest song on the record and the inspiration for the album’s title, “Colombia” was penned by Ayer following the death of his mother. The gorgeous piano bookends the heartbreaking questions sung by a devastated Ayer, “Every night I ask myself/ Am I giving enough?/ Am I giving enough?/ Am I giving enough?/ Am I…” The repetition throughout the song settles into the record like a prayer, connecting the listener to a weakened, honest example of pure grief and artistic expression. The song is offered up like a daily act of contrition, as Ayer continues singing “If you never knew how much/ If you never felt all of my love/ I pray now you do, you do, you do, you do.” The composition is powerful, but it is Ayer’s delivery that makes it meaningful.
The final track, “Bowery,” doesn’t meet the standards set by tracks like “Colombia,” “Ceilings” and “Mt. Washington,” which each showcase the growth and transformation that Local Natives experienced over the course of the past three years. In spite of its shortcomings, “Bowery” offers a telling lyric: “The fall is so much faster than you and I can ever climb.” It so accurately sums up the sense of fear and uncertainty that pervades the album, and the band’s awareness of the fleeting nature of fame. It is this uncertainty and insecurity that really shows on Hummingbird, and ironically, it’s what gives it weight.
While Hummingbird may disenchant the casual fan that was hoping for an album laden with pop-leaning tracks which are rife with drum hooks & foot stomps, it clearly shows a concerted effort to grow and improve. Local Natives refuses to be a one-hit-wonder, and Hummingbird makes it clear that they intent to prove their artistic sustainability. And while portions of the record prove their ability to do so, this attempt at evolution represents only a step in the right direction (but a step, nonetheless).
Written by Molly Schreiber
OurVinyl | Contributor
[To order Hummingbird on iTunes just click here]