[Frenchkiss / Infectious, 2013]
There are some in the music industry who believe that a band’s debut is its most important record. However, it is often the sophomore album that is the more critical to an artist’s success. For every Yellow House (Grizzly Bear) that propels a band forward, there’s a Neither Fish Nor Flesh (Terence Trent D’Arby – remember him?) that effectively kills a promising career.
Hummingbird, the second effort from Southern California’s Local Natives, is one of the most anticipated sophomore albums of the year. Not bad for a band whose debut, Gorilla Manor, seemed to succeed largely based on the “agents of change model” established in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book about social change and critical mass, The Tipping Point. A self-produced album, Gorilla Manor was released in late 2009 and used all of Gladwell’s “connectors” and “mavens,” to get the word of mouth going on the record, with the band themselves serving as the “salesmen,” persuading us to buy into them with their charms, their lyrical honesty and their crisp, rich harmonies.
Local Natives seem to realize the importance of the second album and did not rush into Hummingbird, but rather, parted ways with bassist Andy Hamm; relocated to a studio in New York; and hired the National’s Aaron Dressner as a producer. The result is impressive in its consistency even if they’re not exactly treading new ground here. Perhaps this main criticism isn’t fair, but there is an expectation of something more from such a gorgeous debut – that the debut was beautiful and held promise of more – not more of the same. However, repeated listens show that the Local Natives weren’t trying to push any envelopes, but rather progress slowly while entertaining with a new crop of beautiful, lush songs.
This is an album rich in imagery of hot and cold, light and dark, with summer as a metaphor of where love can be both born and begin to die. The opener, “You and I,” a melancholy “lost love” song, epitomizes the lyrical theme: “In all this light, all I feel is dark / Had the sun without its warmth / I’m freezing.” “Heavy Feet” picks up slightly with a quicker drumbeat and rhythmic clapping through the chorus. The ultimate shoegazing song from Hummingbird is ironically titled “Ceilings,” a dreamy, gorgeous ballad that brings more longing for summer: “Hold the summer in your hands / ‘Til the summer turns into sand / Silver dreams bring me to you.”
Lead singer Kelcey Ayer’s vocals are never more beautiful than on “Colombia,” an elegy to his mother who passed away in 2011. Here is the hummingbird as metaphor, a beautiful creature that crashes, causing the son to wonder if he can ever give as much as the mother who “gave and gave and gave.” Matt Frazier gets a break on the drums for this one as strings and keys dominate the haunting mood. Ayer’s voice slides through registers in perfect concert with Taylor Rice and Ryan Hahn’s guitar chord changes, as the sad lyrics from some of the earlier songs culminate to near lachrymosity in “Colombia.”
Hummingbird is more than just introspective, downtempo songs though. The album’s first single, “Breakers,” opens with jangly guitar and a clapping, percussive beat. The tempo is at its quickest on “Wooly Mammoth,” while album closer, “Bowery,” provides the closest thing to a guitar solo, with some Neil Young-sounding licks as the song kicks and swirls through its middle.
With such rich, vocal harmonies, comparisons to Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver or even the National may be difficult for some to avoid. Local Natives are creating something totally different though, with Hummingbird. They’ve taken this sophomore album very seriously and they have some things they want to say. Progression or evolution is not even the objective here – they want us to love this album and anxiously await what they’re going to do next at the same time. While Hummingbird may not be the Local Natives’ tipping point, they’ve proven through two albums that their talent certainly makes them an outlier.