As I get older, I’ve realized that the old adage, “You can never (truly) go home” is undeniable on so many levels. While you are away, be it months or years, things will change. Friends move away, old haunts go out of business, and people become less and less the ones you thought you knew. Things are never the same. This is why I get nervous when a band like Local Natives waits four years to release a new LP. I knew that Hummingbird wouldn’t be Gorilla Manor part II – a band with that sort of musical and artistic talent could never stay static, they would be compelled to evolve. But here’s the rub: that first album had some serious magic to it, and I would say that less than 25% of bands out there are able to capture that sort of lightning in a bottle on more than one occasion, let alone on sequential albums. Thankfully, Local Natives belong to that elite group of truly talented individuals that have grown, but still have that abstract intangible quality that made their first album so special.
It’s funny, after a few spins I’ve realized just how incredibly fitting the titles of both their albums are. Gorilla Manor is filled with drum beats that sound as if they were culled in the dark steamy recesses of the Congo, paired with harmonized vocals that could have been chanted by indigenous people (local natives?) dancing around the flickering shadows of firelight. It was filled with transcendent artistry layered on top of a lot of soul. Hummingbird certainly inhabits a different soundscape, and while it has the elemental traces of where it came from, it is light and airy, moving back and forth with grace and ease. It is far more hummingbird than gorilla, but both have unique kinds of beauty.
The change is immediately noticeable in the opening track, ‘You & I.’ This song doesn’t summon the summertime joy out of me as so many of their songs have in the past. It is sombre, heartfelt, and reticent, perfectly suiting the dreary January month it was released in. The tribal beats are still there in parts, but they are subdued as singer Taylor Rice croons in falsetto, “When did your love, when did your love go cold? The closer I get, the farther I have to go to places we don’t know.” The song soars towards its end, but in a very different way than we’re used to. The good news is that once your previous notions of who Local Natives are have been washed away, it’s a really damn good song.
‘You & I’ is only the tip of this new iceberg. Songs like ‘Three Months,’ ‘Black Spot,’ and ‘Mt. Washington’ would be hard to recognize as coming from the same band we fell in love with four years ago, save for the vocals. That being said, all of those songs are ridiculously good, and the fact that they are spread evenly throughout the album gives it some much needed variety and pacing, without causing shocks to the system. These songs represent a new level of depth in the band’s song writing, and while unexpected, they are exciting.
And yet it’s not as though Local Natives have wiped the slate clean. There certainly are songs here that easily fit into the vein of the first record. Lead single ‘Breakers,’ as well as ‘Black Balloons,’ encompass all I have ever known and loved about the band: clean guitar licks, stomp along rhythms, and three-part harmonies that explode into the stratosphere. ’Wooly Mammoth’ even steps into darker territory with distorted drums and a guitar line that edges into heavier territory than the band has ever dared to tread before.
And then there’s ‘Heavy Feet,’ a kind of synthesis between the old sounds and the new that show that these styles are not at all incompatible, but closer to opposite sides of the same coin. It’s melody softly lulls your eyes shut, but the instrumentation gets your head nodding and singing along with the easily learned lyric, “After everything.” It’s an interesting song and it leads me to wonder what directions the band will strike out into next.
Complaints about the record: none. I can already guarantee it a spot on my year-end Top 10, and if it doesn’t make the top three, it will have to have been a pretty spectacular year in music. I guess there is one small quibble that I have with the band though, which is that if you’re going to create music this good, don’t make us wait another four years for it. My heart can’t take it.
Grade: “Nearly perfect follow up that embraces the old while forging ahead into uncharted waters”