Review/Listen: Local Natives – Hummingbird

Local Natives - HummingbirdThe totality of loss overshadows the uncertainty of life, at least in the darkest places of our consciousness. This is according to LA fivesome-turned-foursome Local Natives, have grown through loss since their 2010 debut, Gorilla Manor. While recording the record, bassist Andy Hamm left due to personal differences and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer‘s mother passed away. The side effect of consistently moving forwards towards finality and the dusk of your own life can act as a creative catalyst. Hummingbird  is the work of self-reflection, a collection that Local Natives almost pull off flawlessly. For a band whose first album was one fantastic song (“Wide Eyes”) followed by eleven songs of tinkering and experimenting, the cohesiveness of this follow-up must be commended. We must applaud their commitment to the sense of despair that arises within each of us when faced with finality. Sometimes it can be even scarier when that end is not our own.

On Hummingbird, that ending produces the finest song of Local Natives‘ two-album career, “Colombia,”  which is an eulogy. It’s a ballad. It’s an iron fist ripping away each of your heart’s valves until it pulls the muscle, still beating, from your chest and shows you your own humanity. Written for lead singer Kelcey Ayer’s mother, it focuses on her passing by celebrating the beauty of her giving in life. “Am I giving enough?” he repeats throughout, before transforming it into “Am I loving enough?” These questions are what matter at that final moment, when the years of your life come into picture. Does Ayer, crooning ahead of a piano’s slow pounding, feel like he deserves his mother’s memory in his mind? That is a question only he can answer, but as outsiders, we can appreciate his vulnerability and lend a shoulder. That is, until he utters her name, the woman who raised him, and all of his barriers finally come down. He is that beating heart, disconnected from anything that can make it work properly, and Patricia is the one that will sew it back together. He may wonder if he is giving enough, but by giving up this song from his mind’s darkest recesses, he has given us more than we could have thought to ask for.

Of course, that haunting hammer of a track would not work if there was a slosh to get through before arriving. There is no catharsis without suffering, and this is one group that is not afraid to plow through your heart. There is a clear parallel, both musically and thematically, between Local Natives and Peter Silbermann‘s project The Antlers. Both groups share a penchant for lead vocalists that reach peaks with their voices that pierce through your skin, past your bones, and through your tissues. Both also work their despair into almost unfairly catchy pieces of music, instigating a fight between your heart and your head. Where Local Natives excels singularly, however, is in the percussive consistency. A track like “Ceilings” faces an uphill battle, one of staying grounded enough to be felt instead dissipating with the next burst of wind. After all, the track ends with a repeated line of meta-physicality  “silver dreams bring me to you.” Yet, one feels the emotional connection deep inside, and this is where Ayer‘s bandmates keep him up and at ‘em. The drums, pounding in their rhythmic agitation, allow us to believe that these dreams are within our reach.

Later on, “Wooly Mammoth” propels behind a keyboard and guitar that are overshadowed by a drum roll that would make your local full moon circle proud. Where that might suggest dancing and communal enjoyment, it truly works best when internalized. The drums are not just a beat; they are your heartbeat, pressure elevated with the pounding emotions that come with longing. There are some stumbles on the way towards emotional clarity, however. “Black Balloons” sounds too much like a Bon Iver knockoff, one that would play well in a concert hall but not so much on record. The topic of the track doesn’t do it any favors either, going for too much ambiguity when specificity is one of Ayer’s strengths.

Towards the end of the album, but before the aforementioned masterpiece of “Colombia,” the album makes a strong case to be considered heavily. An acoustic guitar strums to introduce “Mt. Washington,” allowing Ayer the chance to take center stage, even as other guitars join in on the pattern. “I don’t have to see you right now,” he repeats, convincing himself before his audience, because sometimes the hardest person to trick into acceptance is yourself. We need an external source to remind us not only that death is coming, but that the life you lead is what makes the total finality of passing so cruel. Hummingbird is that album because it demands to be taken seriously. It may fall short of earning that respect, but it comes so close to the sun without burning up that we have no choice but to take flight alongside it.

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