Local Natives’ first album, “Gorilla Manor,” sounds like it’s basked in folky sunshine- in fact one of its best tracks is appropriately called “Sun Hands”. Released in 2010, the album introduced us to Local Natives’ rich vocal harmonies, up-tempo drums, beautifully textured instrumentation and youthful claps.
“Gorilla Manor” defied the odds of the indie debut and quickly reached widespread critical acclaim and popularity. Suddenly, Local Natives was everyone’s favorite pick for a summer mix CD.
Now, nearly three years later, the sunshine has dimmed to yield the darker yet still beautiful “Hummingbird.”
For many listeners, the new album will feel like only a continuation of the “Gorilla Manor” sound. The Local Natives staples are still prominent. There are still layered harmonies, the slow-building tension and the airy falsetto.
But with a close listen, this sophomore effort makes some real departures from the much-loved debut.
“Hummingbird’s” atmosphere finds the band in a new, shadowier place – a shift which band members have attributed to personal tragedies effecting the band.
Since we last heard from the band, Local Natives lost a member, parting ways with bassist Andy Hamm. Then, Kelcey Ayer, who often serves as the band’s lead vocalist, tragically lost his mother. There is a sense of loss, possibly stemming from these events, that permeates the album’s 44 minute runtime.
The moody sound may also stem from The National’s Aaron Desner taking the role of producer. “Hummingbird” doesn’t approach the depths of despair capable of a band like The National (whose track “Fake Empire” might be one of the saddest songs ever), but the raw folk joy of the first album is nevertheless somewhat scaled back. In its place, there is an added synthetic effect. The sound is cooled-off, but only slightly.
“Hummingbird” offers less clapping and eases the prominant harmonies, but both still make appearances on some tracks like “Heavy Feet,” the album’s cheeriest. The passionate yelling from tracks like “Sun Hands” is replaced by wistful “oohs” on the enthralling first single,“Breakers.”
Whereas Local Natives is seemingly dipping a toe in a new sound, it dives head first into new lyrical territory.
The album opens with “You & I,” a scorching breakup song with lines like “When did your love go cold?” The pain-ridden track introduces the album’s tone featuring a chill never heard on “Gorilla Manor.”
The song’s lines “In all this light, all I feel is dark/ Had the sun without its’ warmth/I’m freezing” makes it clear that the sun, so often referenced in both albums, is no longer a symbol of vitality or hope but rather a reminder of happiness once had.
Probably “Hummingbird’s” best song and the album’s true emotional punch in the wrenching song “Columbia” – which Ayers wrote in the wake of his Columbian-born mother’s death. Ayers sings, “A hummingbird crashed right in front of me and I realized all you did for us.” And if the song wasn’t devastating enough, “If you never knew how much/ If you never felt all my love./ I pray now you do.”
It’s a song so personal, so introspective and so genuinely sad that it feels like a peek behind closed doors into a private scene of the guilt, regret and grief of loss.
The changes made on “Hummingbird” will require some adjustment. It doesn’t have the immediate infectiousness of “Gorilla Manor”, and its songs never quite reach the anthem-like quality that likely attracted so many to the band originally.
The album’s sadness is not summer-mix-tape-approved taking multiple listens for the music to take hold. But “Hummingbird” is worth your time.
Local Natives is a band willing to go places it hasn’t been before (including coming to Turner Hall in Milwaukee March 22). Though the new album retains the spirit of the band, “Hummingbird” also proves Local Natives is not afraid to seek change and venture into the dark.