Hummingbird is a decided and polished move away from the sparser folk-pop of Local Natives’ 2009 debut Gorilla Manor. They always leaned toward indie, but this second album is more assured, more concentrated. Some of the influences and comparisons are obvious — keyboards and vocals suggesting Grizzly Bear, piano lines and heavy bridges that nod to Radiohead. Yet you can hear how their own early work underlies the songs.
The clarity of harmonies on older songs such as ‘World News’ has morphed into the grand choral refrains of ‘Colombia’. They still have that great ear for rhythm, as demonstrated by the handclaps and rolling percussion of ‘Heavy Feet’. The album owes much to Aaron Dessner, whose production gives distinction to each track, for example using drum machines and synthesizers on ‘You & I’ and ‘Bowery’, while going for a cleaner, rockier sound elsewhere. The balance of electronic and conventional instrumentation is careful and striking, bringing to mind Danger Mouse’s work (for example on ‘Breakers’).
That investment in individual tracks gives the album a great range, and it’s easy to imagine them eventually following Grizzly Bear to the top of the Billboard chart. Part of Hummingbird’s appeal is how it manages a depth of sound and emotion underneath a poppy surface. ‘Ceilings’, a summery build up of guitars, keyboards and drums, is undercut by lyrics about time passing: “what we would give to have one more day of sun”. They use crescendos repeatedly, which works better on some songs than others. On ‘Black Balloons’, clean guitars and quiet organ shift into big, fuzzy choruses, but ‘Black Spot’ strains the formula by letting other instruments overwhelm the central piano and vocal parts. In contrast, ‘Three Months’ stays brilliantly simple and understated.
Stand-out track ‘Woolly Mammoth’ overlays drum rolls and echoing riffs, with a fantastic vocal refrain. Similar swells and rumbles on ‘Breakers’ imitate the push and pull of the sea, “breathing out only to breathe in”. Guitar effects and organs develop a psych-rock element reminiscent of old work such as ‘Sun Hands’, but the background synth noises add a new edge. ‘Mt. Washington’ and ‘Bowery’ hint at what these touches bring to the Local Natives’ repertoire: loud, anthemic moments that will be impressive during a live set. As with their first album, the band’s brilliance lies in rhythmic percussion, big harmonies and catchy choruses, minimalist guitar and keys. The soul and strength of Hummingbird comes from Local Natives’ willingness to experiment with songwriting, and the producer’s development of their distinctive sound.
Words: Alice Knapp