Not many bands receive as much acclaim on their debut album as L.A. band Local Natives did for Gorilla Manor. The record’s catchy melodies, woven vocals and easy-going, youthful attitude made it a highlight of 2010. Flash-forward three years, and the band is back with a new album called Hummingbird. They’ve kept their three-part harmonies and drum-filled instrumentals, but the band has matured over the past few years. Gorilla Manor wasn’t quite upbeat, top-40 pop, but it had a wandering, carefree kind of vibe with lyrics like “Is my life about to change?/Who knows? Who cares?” Hummingbird is a lot more serious, a lot more personal, as if life has caught up to the vivacious band.
In the three-year gap between releases, Local Natives suffered two major losses, which they have credited for the mood change. The band cut ties with bassist Andy Hamm in the summer of 2011, which the group described on its blog at the time as a choice reached with “heavy hearts.” Shortly after, the mother of co-lead vocalist and keyboard player Kelcey Ayer passed away. Hummingbird finds the band in the aftermath of tragedy, and you can hear the hurt in the more somber sound.
The album is introduced by the steady beat of Matt Frazier’s drum and the watery strum of Taylor Rice’s electric guitar on “You And I,” which set the stage for Ayer to unleash his heartache of a voice. The falsetto chorus of “When did your love grow cold?/The closer I get, the further I have to go/To places we don’t know” readies you for the open emotion that many of the songs possess. Fortunately, the band didn’t do a complete 180. More buoyant songs like “Heavy Feet” are reminiscent of those on Gorilla Manor with the militaristic drums, hand claps and atmospheric guitar.
During a tour with the National in 2011, Local Natives befriended the band’s Aaron Dessner, who co-produced Hummingbird at his home in Brooklyn. The National specializes in writing bleak, emotive songs that envelop you in a dark, brooding atmosphere where the instruments still sound crisp. If you’re trying to convey sorrow, Dessner is your guy, and you can hear his influence on “Colombia,” a track written in honor of Ayer’s mother. Piano chords plod along the bassline while an acoustic guitar twinkles at the high end. “Am I giving enough?” Ayer asks, calling out his mom, Patricia, by name. Pain, regret, self-doubt: It’s all present, wrapped in Dessner’s gray cloud. Although this is the penultimate song, “Colombia” is very much the album’s climax.
Local Natives didn’t do a huge sonic overhaul from Gorilla Manor to Hummingbird. With both albums, they’ve proved that they can enchant with addictive choruses and soft melodies. But they were scratching at the surface of their emotional capabilities on their debut. With Hummingbird, Local Natives show that they can dig deeper.