By Jackson Howard , Daily Arts Writer
Published January 29, 2013
At the end of 2009, Local Natives found itself at the top of the indie rock world after releasing its exceptional debut, Gorilla Manor. The band toured the festival circuit, received a good amount of media coverage and performed on a few talk shows. And then it disappeared. The buzz from the first album had all but faded by the time the band announced its second album, Hummingbird, almost three years after its debut.
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Hummingbird isn’t a carbon copy of Gorilla Manor, but rather a darker and more introspective version. The National’s Aaron Dessner is behind the boards, and his influence is felt in every minor chord throughout the album.
Not that the lyrics on Gorilla Manor were worthless, but on Hummingbird, lead singer Taylor Rice sings them likes he really means them. Singing on an exponentially more melancholy album than its predecessor, Rice sounds less like the light-hearted 20-something that sang on the band’s debut and more like a man who has just emerged from a Brooklyn basement after spending the last three years drinking whiskey and crying about a break-up.
In fact, the band’s light-hearted sound has been tinted so dark, it makes you wonder if some traumatic event occurred in the three years the group was recording the album. The rattling drums of Gorilla Manor are still present on Hummingbird, but this time they’re accompanied by sparse piano chords, haunting guitars and very little orchestral arrangement.
The opener, “You & I,” sets the mood, as Rice sounds utterly defeated, asking in a desperate falsetto, “When did your love grow cold?” The song, save a great horn-backed bridge, is subdued and glum, but still manages to move along at a reasonable pace.
Most of the songs on the album follow in this despondent vein — “Three Months” incorporates a piano sound reminiscent of The National and a falsetto from Rice that is so smooth it evokes The Weeknd, while “Colombia” utilizes a simple drum machine and slowly building chords that create a sad and palpable tension.
The emotional weight of the album is definitely heavy, and there’s a point where Rice’s pained vocals and the band’s ominous and dejected sound get a bit exhausting. Gorilla Manor was great because it kept the listener engaged, even in its lowest and most pensive moments. On Hummingbird, there are times when Dessner’s production feels messy and disjointed. His work is probably more suited for a band like The National and not Local Natives, which requires a less minimalist and more engaged sound. At worst, a few songs, like “Black Spot” and the aforementioned “Three Months,” have no real audible structure, and instead simply linger.
On the contrary, tracks like “Wooly Mammoth” and “Breakers” — two of the best — show that the album isn’t all gloom. On “Wooly Mammoth,” grungy bass, electric organs and cymbal crashes envelop the band’s twisting vocals, while “Breakers” shakes the album awake after four slower songs. The latter is an epic combination of hyperactive guitars, Beach Boys harmony and a floating, wordless chorus that is sure to be used in some upcoming car commercial.
The work comes to a rest on “Bowery.” With drums pitter-pattering and synths vibrating in the background, an electric-guitar solo rings out, the harmonies swirl louder and louder and the track continues to build — it feels like it’s about to overflow — and then nothing. The song ends, leaving behind a feeling that can be only described as severe emptiness. “Every night out I ask myself / Am I giving enough?” Rice wonders on “Colombia.” Listen to Hummingbird a few times, and it’s clear that (in his opinion) the answer will always be no.