'Hummingbird:' the Darker Side of Local Natives
Once in a blue moon an album comes along that brings me to my music loving knees, and like an addiction I can't quit it. I listen to it night and day, on repeat, my heart simultaneously sinking and exploding. Oh, how I love an album – a truly good album, one with depth, arc, and power. When Local Natives released the video and new single to their upcoming disk via Pitchfork, my hands got clammy, a knot in my stomach began to form in anticipation, and I'm not the only one. Local Native's sophomore effort, Hummingbird is one of the most anticipated of 2013.
My introduction to Local Natives came in San Francisco. "Airplanes" wistfully tumbled out of speakers at a house party and, while everyone else danced, I stood still in the middle of the room and listened. When I finally got my hands on Gorilla Manor (2010), however, it fell a tiny bit short for me. I wanted the build and emotional energy in "Airplanes" to be teased out and applied to the whole. Regardless, this band was on my radar and I patiently waited for Hummingbird. The album drops January 29, but I got an early listen.
Hummingbird has a serious depth to it, and a balanced darkness that follows a clear musical narrative. Credit this in part to Aaron Dessner of The National, who helped Local Natives with the recording and production. The opening track, "You & I" sets the tone. We hear sunny guitars, light percussion, and synthy tones. Kelcey Ayer's vocals don't build, but start strong, with the sense that he's just barely holding something to himself -- like he could, at any given moment, break into a full-on battle cry. The chorus is where Ayer's tense voice quiets down but goes up in pitch and we hear the swirling melodies of an organ, in-depth guitar parts, carefully clashing cymbals, and layer upon layer of harmonious sound. "You & I" holds a powerful struggle, which is present in both the lyrics and Ayer's beautifully emphatic vocals. After all, "the closer I get, the further I have to go, to places you don't know." This song foreshadows how dynamic the rest of the album is, taking us to places we don't yet know.
My personal favorite, "Columbia," is the second to last track. This is where the title lands in the opening verse, "A hummingbird crashed right in front of me." The repetitive, almost obsessive chorus takes over the entire song lyrically. "Every night I ask myself, am I giving enough, am I giving enough, am I giving enough, am I? Every night I ask myself, am I loving enough, am I loving enough, am I?" Here are the illusions of grandeur, the emotional calls begging a response from someone who can no longer answer. This song, written for a band member's mother who passed away suddenly last year, is the lynchpin on the record, the place we pause to appreciate the true skill these musicians have in creating such a powerful atmosphere.
It's not all tension and heartache, though. "Breakers," the record's first single, is rich with energy and longing for the next steps in the song. Featuring the group vocals we know well from Gorilla Manor and intersecting walls of sound, "Breakers" is the perfect teaser. The music video was filmed on a beach in Malibu, and in and around Silverlake and Echo Park in L.A. Drummer Matt Frazier corrected me when I mentioned the beach in the video looked like Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I suppose a breaker is a breaker is a breaker to someone not from around here.
Even though Local Natives are a Los Angeles-based band, according to Frazier they don't get to San Francisco enough. We had a chat about San Francisco, Hummingbird, and how the band shapes its sound. They're hoping to make it out here more than just for the show at the Fox this coming Wednesday, January 30 in Oakland, but when they have a day off in San Francisco they like to spend it basking in the sun at Dolores Park with their Bay Area friends and visiting neighborhood bars.
"I'm really into craft beer and San Francisco has some great micro breweries and bars with good beer. That place in the Haight, Magnolia is a favorite of mine." Even though Frazier's not much of a coffee drinker, he'll enjoy a cup of Blue Bottle without much arm-twisting. Once we established that Local Natives clearly have good taste, I asked Frazier where they absolutely love to play. Without missing a beat he divulged, "The Fillmore is a pretty obvious choice for any band, but our favorite show we've played in the past couple years was at the Fillmore in 2010." This was of course the point in the conversation where I started kicking myself for hearing "Airplanes" at that party the week after that show.
A band's live show is more important than ever with studio technology advancing, the digital download, and YouTube sharing. Frazier and I share the same sentiment about how much of a "bummer it is when you see a band you really love and it's not the same live." I asked him how Local Natives approaches their live show, "we're really meticulous with every aspect of the band. The whole live performance has been the number one thing from day one." He described their process, which is essentially playing all the songs in a room together making sure the collaborations are there and the sound is strong. "Recording was a secondary thing. And then when the songs were recorded we wanted to get to a place where the songs are as good or better live as the ones on the record."
The closeness of their relationships with one another comes through as they share life experiences, push each other creatively, and make advances with their sound. With bands like Best Coast gaining a lot of recognition in the indie music world, there's a lot of talk about a new California "sound," though it's still hard to define what it exactly is. Since Local Natives reside in Silverlake, I pondered whether or not Frazier thought there was anything intrinsically Californian to their sound. "The first record had a bright and "sunny" sound. Wasn't purposeful, it's just the music we make. This record feels darker, deeper undertones, and heavier. Through that even there is a sense of joy and brightness to it, that could come from where we're from."
For me Hummingbird holds a bit of California sun, but not the bright and shiny Los Angeles kind. This record feels more like a foggy summer day in San Francisco -- bursts of light burning through the fog only to be met with a light mist in the air, slowly coating everything and making its way into every part of you. Listen for the subtleties -- they are there -- and certainly don't miss a chance to see Local Natives live.
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