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Local Natives, ‘Hummingbird’ (Frenchkiss)

Local Natives / Photo by Bryan Sheffield
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Label: Frechkiss

You are forgiven for dismissing Local Natives as yet another cohort of super-sensitive, baroque-rockin’, breathtakingly mustachioed L.A. gents who fetishize the word “polyrhythm” and (quite probably) dress up in goofy animal costumes and howl with a studied sort of feral melancholy at whatever tiny portion of the moon is visible through the toxic cloud of smog/narcissism hovering over the Silverlake Lounge. (The mustaches, by gosh, the one guy’s, it’s like he’s on hiatus from wrestling alligators in a striped bathing suit whilst guzzling heroic amounts of gin at old-timey “publick” houses.) You are forgiven for stereotyping thus, but you are also kind of a dick.

Let’s put it plain: All-caps INDIE ROCK needs a deeper bench, new A-listers ready for action when we finally tire of the usual suspects’ steadily diminishing returns, from Animal Collective’s art-concussed impenetrability to Grizzly Bear’s opera-house fussiness to Dirty Projectors’ ornate, synchronized yapping. Hummingbird, the second album by Local Natives (down now to a quartet after dropping a bass player, which, unless you’re dating a member of the band, I wouldn’t worry about) vies for that pantheon with drum-circle brawn and chamber-pop beauty, and gets closer to transcendence than most of the stuff lately emitting from the pantheon itself.

Yes, those are our boys roughly mooing and mewling and braying and whatnot at the onset of track two off their debut, 2009’s Gorilla Manor, an oft-splendid little psych-pop record that had nonetheless already peaked with bracing opener “Wide Eyes,” which suffices as a one-song primer: nimble Afropop-leaning guitar, distant-thunderstorm Blue Man Group percussion squalls, ghostly deep-canyon vocal harmonies (most of these dudes sing, in impressively anarchic democratic unison), vague Navajo-sweat-lodge lyrical mysticism. It feels both jubilant and profoundly sad, Vampire Weekend’s global-shopping-spree bravado recast as tragedy, tUnE-yArDs’ trash-can-whacking cacophony filtered through the elegant orchestral stoicism of various other NPR darlings.

From there the album’s hit or miss — a touch of reggae buoyance here, a long stretch of moribund piano balladry there, a coupla group-shouted choruses for Burning Man enthusiasts, a Talking Heads cover (“Warning Sign,” though they’re much more the “I Zimbra” type) just in case they can talk you into making the comparison. No thanks, but a few moments — the one, at least, anyway — do legit qualify as “haunting.”

Which brings us to Hummingbird, named for our most neurotic of avian friends, which lacks its predecessor’s one killer jam but improves mightily on the whole. This one kicks off with “You and I,” a slow, digital Spaghetti Western rumbler that cranks up the grandeur immeasurably, from co-vocalist Kelcey Ayer’s freshly impassioned wail on down — either you’ll be relieved or exasperated to learn that this was partially recorded in Brooklyn and produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, they of the National, the gold standard in sumptuously articulated first-world problems. As the reverb and the pathos and the alt-arena-rock aural magnificence doth churn and subsume like the mighty sea itself, the opener gives a nice initial jolt, dissolving into mournful horn drones and post-verbal falsetto exhalations. (That’s “nominal frontman” because Rice’s wails are usually delicately intertwined with his bandmates’ in an impressive feat of democratic anarchy.) Consider the palette expanded.

Busy band; busy record. A little frantic, really. Every song’s percussive core is roughly 15 percent more manic than is strictly advised — drum circles with superfluous graduate degrees. Though the one called “Heavy Feet” paradoxically dials it back a bit, graced with more breathing room, notably less moribund piano, some handclap action, and somberly delivered lyrics that imbue beach-kegger meet-cutes with biblical import: “Powder in your hair / Staples in your jeans / Fireworks at the water / You were holy / Styrofoam cup / Held between your teeth / Telling me how you’re going to / Outlive your body.” The fast ones like this struggle with sonic clutter but reliably shake it all off for 50-ton choruses of triumphant Bonnaroo simplicity: “Spill yourself at her feet,” commands the one called “Wooly Mammoth” with non-paradoxical overwhelming enormity.

But Hummingbird‘s primary weapons are power ballads. “Black Spot” opens with jittery solo piano and scrambles desperately toward a full-throated mega-crescendo redolent of Fleet Foxes, the West Coast Technicolor Americana spirit-animal band to which Local Natives are (reasonably) most often compared. “Three Months” rides a stuttering electronic pulse and calmer, warmer piano chords to more solemn, solitary ends. And “Colombia” is the tear-jerking showstopper, a shattering eulogy for Ayer’s mother, full of counted breaths (“Until there were none / Were none / Were none / Were none”) and the titular hummingbird crashing at his feet the day after and a climactic lament of “Patricia / Every night I’ll ask myself / Am I loving enough? / Am I loving enough?”

Whereupon you get to feeling pretty lousy about all those mustache jokes. Such unguarded humanity doesn’t always burst through the concrete of Hummingbird’s impressive but stifling sonic fanciness, but moments so raw and lovely justify both their efforts and your efforts in surviving the occasionally oppressive nature of their efforts. This ain’t perfect, nor is it exactly sui generis, but it still ought to bump up their summer-festival-lineup-poster font size by a solid five points or so. Beats the hell outta the Stone Roses reunion.