Album Review: Local Natives – Hummingbird

[Frenchkiss; 2013]

Compare them to whomever you will, Local Natives are coming into their own. Over the past few years, the Californian quartet (formerly a quintet) have floated up into the upper echelons of a populous musical scene. They wasted no time with their ascent. Attentive songwriting, tight rhythms and dovetailing harmonies characterized their debut back in 2010. The gentle spirit of Gorilla Manor has receded into something even more ghostly on Hummingbird. It’s slicker and reedier than its predecessor, and it demands a much larger audience.

It’s true that the creative choices that Local Natives have made resemble those of quite a few other bands; it’s also true that a lot of these other bands aren’t making these choices with half as much intelligence and savvy. Hummingbird‘s Producer Aaron Dessner (of The National) has played a significant part in this; he has sanded these songs down to their essence. As a result, the album strikes a good number of emotional chords that could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle.

Much like the creature that it takes its name from, many of Hummingbird‘s transgressions are so subtle or swift as to be indecipherable. It operates with such proficiency that, initially, it feels like Local Natives may not be doing enough to keep things afloat. But less ends up becoming more, as Hummingbird relinquishes its treasures piece by piece with a sort of unhurried charm. Take “Black Balloons,” which maintains a sense of halcyon detachment even as it builds into what feels like nothing less than an adventure. “Play your part,” urges the three-part harmony as plunging guitars and skittish drum patterns dance attendance. Lead single “Breakers” conjures a similarly perfect storm, with translucent guitars tightly wound around another swaying, melancholic three-part harmony.

Hummingbird‘s temperament is, quite often, a result of the production choices. The experimentation is subdued but evident, as Local Natives coolly press their sound forward into some very subjugated territory. The bleak, brilliant, and beautiful “Mt Washington” throbs with realism. It is a feeble attempt to delay the inevitable. There’s loss in the words, but the loss isn’t clean cut; ambiguity seeps in at every turn. “Digging like you can’t bury/ Something that cannot die,” sings Taylor Rice, summoning a vibrato that stands as a last line of defense before the tears begin to overflow.

For a vocal style that could have easily been hammed up to the nth degree, the restraint that Rice shows stands out precisely because it doesn’t stand out. Even if he isn’t totally in control of his feelings, he seems to wield total command of his voice. This facility is no more prominent than it is on “Ceilings,” as he turns on a dime, inflecting effortlessly to a gossamer falsetto while a polished folk-rock riff brings to mind the similarly thrifty group Wild Beasts.

Lyrically, Hummingbird is as naked as it gets. “I am letting you know/ I am ready to feel you,” Rice swoons on “Three Months.” This highly corporal style of confession is plastered all over the record (“Telling me how you’re going to outlive your body/ What you said I wrote it down,” “At the time I wasn’t with you/ By the time I didn’t care”). But beyond these emotionally engaging outpourings, this album has much to offer. With patience, Hummingbird‘s panorama comes into full view, and it is one full of arrestingly arranged set pieces and an impressive sense of economy.