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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Albums of the Year - #13: Local Natives - "Hummingbird"

Rating: 7.6/10

The second album from L.A.-based indie rockers Local Natives, the airy, lighthearted Hummingbird suffers from a classic case of having excellent singles but also possessing way too much filler. The record is strongest when the band are at their most ambitious, and is weakest when the songs become simpler and less involved. Still, there aren't really any bad songs on Hummingbird; only boring ones. The album at times is dark, something the group's 2009 debut Gorilla Manor did not forge towards, or at least not as successfully. The lyrics were apparently influenced by the death of singer/multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer's mother and the departure of original bassist Andy Hamm.

The more morose tunes are some of the album's best moments, as it doesn't get much better than the opening one-two punch of "You & I" and "Heavy Feet." The former utilizes an edgy drum beat and mysterious guitar twists that sit under a confused, wandering vocal. "When did your love go cold? The closer I get, the farther I have to go" cries Ayer. The song reaches a climax during the bridge, as an early break of "oh"'s, horns, and tribal drums gives way to one of the best-sung notes of the year. Accompanied by an even sadder video, "You & I" nabbed the #27 spot on my countdown of the year's best individual songs. When I had the pleasure of seeing these guys live at this past September's Boston Calling, this song was the definite show-stopper during their set. It's one of this young band's best songs to date, and definitely their most mature one.

"You & I"'s partner-in-crime in starting off Hummingbird is even more impressive. "Heavy Feet" focuses in on a complex drum beat, complimented with handclaps and stellar bass play, and features excellent overall sound thanks to album producer and The National member Aaron Dessner. The change in intensity between the verse and chorus is more than noticable, as the guitar tones make the song bigger than expected.

The group clearly draws influence from fellow up-and-comers Grizzly Bear, most evident on songs like "Bowery" and "Black Balloons." Each feature vocal harmonies and dreamy guitar work. Other notable songs include "Wooly Mammoth," a relentless and frantic track, and "Ceilings," a more relaxing but still enjoyable song.

Still, there are some duds that you wish had been modified or scrapped altogether, and this really holds the album as a whole back. "Three Months" feels like it lasts for three months, though the official track length reads about four and a half minutes. "Columbia" is a piano ballad that never quite seems to come together. The record is also top-heavy, which disrupts the flow greatly; arguably the two best tracks are the first two, and the only other truly stellar song comes fifth on the setlist.

That fifth song is "Breakers," another drum-heavy song with jangly guitars, though this time the chorus soars above the clouds and seems to be enjoying itself. In the chorus, the band's other vocalist, Taylor Rice, sings, "breathing out only to breathe in, I know nothing's wrong but I'm not convinced." A wave of hi-hats and "ooh"'s overtake the breathtaking chorus.

Hummingbird is a strong effort that arguably produced Local Natives' two best songs to date. However, it is less consistent throughout than Gorilla Manor, and has its dull moments. Nevertheless, some tracks are so superb and others are still far enough above average that Hummingbird certainly warranted a place on my top 15.

Key Tracks: "You & I," "Heavy Feet," "Breakers"

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