Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Album Review: Local Natives - "Hummingbird"

There were very few albums confirmed for release in 2013 that made me more giddy and anxious than the promise of a new Local Natives album. Their previous effort, and first LP, Gorilla Manor, bolstered a sound so attention-grabbing that it was almost impossible to not connect with. A sound that you could swear seemed oddly familiar, even if it was your first time listening to the album; you'd heard the sound before, but it had never been this good.

Gorilla Manor debuted in the UK in November of 2009, but didn't hit the States until February of 2010. Needless to say, the album was a hit overseas, and generated plenty of buzz back home before its release. Songs like "Airplanes" "Camera Talk" and "Who Knows, Who Cares"  all gleamed with pop glory, while hitting hard with affection and vehement emotion; "Airplanes" written about a family member never known, lost, but always remembered; "Camera Talk" telling the story of falling in love (whilst on vacation?); and "Who Knows, Who Cares" features a story line of lyrics that make me wish I could've used it as my HS graduation song (and that drum break!). In 2009/10, it really didn't get much better than these songs.

All of this lead to my anticipation and frantic desire to get my hands on anything new from Local Natives, and I know I wasn't alone. If nothing else, their new material, or lack thereof, was a very good ploy to build the "giddiness" I felt with each new tidbit of info I got.

The band returned home to Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California and built a rehearsal space and studio to begin work on the new album. This allowed them the space and freedom to write songs in a whole new manner, compared to the frenzy that occurred when Gorilla Manor was produced (GM was actually named for the small, cluttered house the band members occupied in Orange County while writing the album).

Fast forward, I guess, and Hummingbird is finally filling my ears.

It starts with "You & I" a fitting opening chapter to Hummingbird: a slow crescendo, sweeping vocals with range to spare from Kelcey Ayer, and a beautiful piano part that actually makes your toe tap more than the actual rhythm sections. Not to mention emotional lyrics to boot: "Where did your love grow cold?/ The closer I get, the further I have to go/ to places we don't know."

Next is the band's latest single from the album, "Heavy Feet" another down-tempo and emotional journey through something seemingly awful. Ayer's ability to wrench your heart with lyrics that are simple yet actually hit you with an uncanny amount of depth. The bridge contains the lyrics "Careful what you say next, don't waste a scene, you're drunk" and if you don't relate to that you're either straight-edge or an actual jolly drunk... either way I'm not buying it.

And this is almost used as rhetoric throughout the rest of the album's material. Each song features haunting lyrics and vocal sections, but rarely more than four verses. The songs are all very repetitive, with bewildering guitar and piano parts, providing depth that just begs for the songs to be seen performed live.

The album's second-to-last song, "Columbia" delivers the theme behind Hummingbird's emotionality, and says "shame on you for thinking we were referring to a pretty little hummingbird..." as Ayer sings in the first verse: "The day after I had counted down/ All of your breaths/ Down until there were none/A hummingbird crashed right in front of me/ and I understood all you did for us/ You gave, and gave, and gave, and gave"

Hummingbird provides a much darker sound than what was put forward with Gorilla Manor. There is no "Camera Talk" - no undeniably catchy song that could garner heavy radio airplay by default. The songs Local Natives created for Hummingbird is anything but light and flighty like its name sake. Instead it is acutely straight-forward, dark, and almost emotionally exhausting. "Black Spot" tells the incredibly macabre story of someone's journey to accepting death: "And I see the things I always knew/ but wasn't sure until now/ that if it comes to claim me/ I won't run." 

"Breakers" is just as defeating. The last line of the song highlights its motifs: the effects of crippling depression, "Breathing out/ hoping to breathe in/ I know nothing's wrong, but I'm not convinced/ I can let it happen, just let it happen/ Just don't think so much, don't think so much." Ayer shows off his unwavering falsetto with "Three Months" when he impressively hits notes throughout the chorus, and the song serves as a perfect soundtrack to the unfathomable low after an unexpected emotional high. The album continues to stretch itself between these two opposite ends of the emotional spectrum (without ever actually highlighting the "highs").

Local Natives enlisted "new touring buddy," The National's Aaron Dessner to help produce the album, and Dessner's fingerprints are all over it... and his fingers were apparently dipped in liquid melancholy.

There enlies my one criticism of the album. The album is so emotionally heavy that it's difficult to believe Dessner wasn't just envisioning a new album from The National while producing Local Natives' sophomore effort. The drums featured in songs like "Heavy Feet" and "Wooly Mammoth" actually sound as if they were sampled from songs by The National. Luckily, the palette of instruments, multi-layered vocals, and Ayer's vocal ability all serve as a saving grace so the likeness isn't as blunt throughout the entire album.

While the palette for Hummingbird was very similar to Gorilla Manor, the scope of the album as a whole was narrowed drastically. The sporadic feeling from GM has been completely left behind, not only as an album but as a place. Left behind are the cluttered rooms that resulted in instruments being knocked around, and with them is the sound that setting created. Hummingbird does not serve as a "sophomore slump" but simply a sophomore alleyway that sets them down a singular path. While it would have been nice to have a few songs to illicit positive emotions, the manner in which Hummingbird is explicitly delivered is still satisfying.

My Rating: 4.3/5

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