From the foot-stomping highs of Gorilla Manor (2010), Local Natives’ sophomore album Hummingbird has taken a darker and more introspective turn. Co-produced with The National’s Aaron Dessner, the album shifts away from the celebratory tone of Gorilla and embraces brooding and complexly woven instrumental techniques alongside the stunning and mature vocal talent of Kelcey Ayer and Taylor Rice.
Where Gorilla Manor drives impressive three-part vocal harmonies through an upbeat, hand-clapping, drum-fired abandon, Hummingbird quietly controls all the tools at its disposal, each song building toward a slow but soulful release – a release that never really lets go. The pain and growth the band experienced in the years between the two albums – the loss of bassist Andy Hamm after the release of Gorilla and the death of Ayer’s mother last summer – are revealed in Hummingbird’s preoccupation with disillusionment, confusion, loss, and futility. One of its most compelling songs – “Breakers” – expresses these sentiments concisely: “Breathing out, hoping to breathe in. / I know nothing’s wrong but I’m not convinced.” It is an album that tries to hold onto its emotions even as it drowns in a panoply of feeling.
Despite the relative simplicity of the album’s song lyrics – “Three Months” has only two three-line verses and one one-line refrain over four minutes – the balance between vocals and instruments is upheld through a combination of silence and slow-moving sound production. Layered overtop of lilting, wavy synth, radiant guitar riffs, and atmospheric percussion, Ayer’s vocals regularly draw one syllable of a word across three or four beats in any given song, like a slow, melodic pull of a spoon out of honey.
Of all of Hummingbird’s songs, “Three Months,” “Colombia,” and “Black Spot” play into a more delicately directed sound, relying sparingly on sweet piano and dulcet guitar tones before building into post-rock-like climaxes. Less hyped by reviewers, the emotionally engaging “Wooly Mammoth” is one of the most difficult songs on the album. Its heavier, dissatisfied energy is actually stressful to listen to until the first refrain; the frantic movement of drums and discordant tones throughout the song create a sense of urgency and anxiety that is only, and satisfyingly, resolved when the refrain asks you to “spill yourself at her feet / stamp me out flickering.”
With this album, it’s apparent that Local Natives weren’t so concerned with immediate accessibility – Hummingbird is much like a newly uncorked wine that just needs time to breathe – but fans and music lovers alike will find this a satisfying and maturing step for the band. Even stripped down, these songs hold up, and Local Natives’ attention to compositional detail is hard to ignore. Right now I’m not concerned with what’s to come for them – I think it’s time we enjoyed what they’ve just given us.
Check out this live session of “You & I” from their visit to Toronto last month: