Local Natives, Folk chemists from Los Angeles, made a huge splash in 2009 with their debut, Gorilla Manor. Interviews and downloads were plastered over blogs, charts and radio stations. They toured for almost all of 2010 around the continental US, central Europe and some parts of Canada, consequently finding themselves playing huge summer festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. They did take a few breaks along the way, performing on late night talk shows and sitting down with Walt Disney Concert Hall’s chamber orchestra to collaborate on grandiose versions of their hit songs. For five dudes living together in a house they named their first album after, they had a couple of pretty good years.
Not that they didn’t earn it. Local Natives make fresh World Psych Folk that draws a lot of comparisons to the harmonies of Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes and the Afro-Pop of Vampire Weekend. They also have a group stage dynamic that makes you wish you lived in Gorilla Manor too. But like a lot of good things, it can’t all be sunshine and “Sun Hands.” They were winding down from the success of their first album and going through standard, how-do-we-follow-this growing pains. Then in 2011, bassist Andy Hamm left the band, and the five-some had to learn to be a foursome.
Hummingbird deals with these pains through a pensive reflection on lost lovers, friends and directions. Repetitive imagery like “sun without its warmth,” “summer turns to sand,” “left in the sun, shivering” and “trying to strike a match that’s soaking wet,” are incredibly bleak and nostalgic. A background percussive intro and lonely Thom Yorke-esque vocals on “You & I” start the album with a “Reckoner” feel from In Rainbows. Abrupt cuts at the ends of tracks are a far cry away from the joking around at the beginning of “Airplanes” on Gorilla Manor. There’s some joviality in places, like the beginning of “Black Balloons” where a jangly Bon Iver style guitar begins to spin off a rockabilly beat. But after two verses and a bridge, the wall of keyboard, glockenspiel, percussion and effects stifles the bright strumming.
It also deals with the death of Ayer’s mother, Patricia, on a tribute to her mother country, “Colombia”. With a clue to the album title, we hear “A hummingbird crashed right in front of me and I understood all you did for us. You gave, and gave, and gave, and gave.” Ayer’s straining repetition is on the verge of crying. It is completely heartbreaking.
In an interview with KCRW, Local Natives talked about their choice to record their album in New York with The National’s Aaron Dessner instead of their own studio in LA, a project they (also) managed to tackle between their two albums. What was their main reason? “It’s too nice here and easy. We had to leave to record otherwise it would’ve never been finished.” Maybe the city atmosphere also fit the type of songs they had written.
Whatever the reason or methods, Hummingbird is a beautiful second step for Local Natives. It is solid, back to front, and shows the emotional and talent growth of the foursome. Although some of the content is melancholy, there are uplifting moments. On the final track, “Bowery,” Matt Frazier delivers airtight drumming, building a rhythmic chugging. Combined with the high harmonies of “ooo”s it sounds like a locomotive, barreling past at mercurial speeds.