A young band starts out like a jagged stone. Their sound is bold but rough, not yet finely honed. Eventually, after tumbling down the rushing stream that is the music industry, they’re sanded down into a smooth pebble. Where there were once sharp edges, there are now gently curved surfaces. Their sound is less adventurous, but more focused and more mature.
Local Natives is no exception to that rule. Their debut album, Gorilla Manor was an energetic, exuberant affair, bursting with soaring melodies and satisfying percussive stomps. Hummingbird, their sophomore follow-up, reins in the band’s energy. The melodies still soar, but now they’re backed by sunny harmonies. The percussion doesn’t hit as hard, but it satisfies all the same. The result is a lush, beautiful record that isn’t as immediately arresting as the band’s debut, but promises to have more staying power.
The band has paid more attention to songcraft this time around. Songs don’t default to the standard verse-chorus-verse format. The band has let the music drive their song structures, writing wherever the songs take them. “Black Spot” builds up from repeated staccato piano notes to a huge crescendo, while closing track “Bowery” includes a lengthy instrumental section. Songwriters often include elements like those, but Local Natives’ use of them here never feels deliberate.
The instrumentation here is rich, with guitars layered on top of keyboards layered on top of basses. The vocals blend in like just another instrument, alternating between actual lyrics and simple “oohs” and “aahs,” often effortlessly sliding into a falsetto that would put Justin Vernon (lead singer of Bon Iver) to shame. The timbres are always bright, recalling sunny days spent by a lake. In fact, the ballad “Three Months” features what sound like bird chirps in the background, conjuring images of trees by the water. A lovely folksy charm pervades the entire record, even as it draws heavily from the indie pop tradition and makes ample use of synthesizers. This isn’t roots rock; this is modern music’s take on the great American outdoors.
If Hummingbird does have a problem, it’s that it’s a little too smooth. It’s by no means overproduced, but its easy effortlessness makes for tracks that aren’t wholly memorable on their own. Bits and pieces of melodies will stick with the listener once the album is over, but it can be difficult to tell the songs apart in one’s head. The album works extremely well as background music while performing other tasks, but an exceedingly close listen may be unrewarding.
Overall, though, Hummingbird is a fantastic record. Few albums can evoke a sense of place as well as it does. This is the American wilderness in musical form, best enjoyed by letting the music wash over you as your mind drifts away to a cabin by the lake.