Monday, 11 February 2013

Local Natives - Hummingbird

 

An album cover often says a lot about a band, let alone the particular sounds we'll be expecting upon first listen. The presence of the band themselves - or to a lesser extent, people that draw from the same social, cultural or age range as the band - suggests perhaps a loftier height of confidence and self-assurance with themselves. That what they're projecting is of their own desired interests, and nothing that conflicts with any personal alignments they might hold. But given that the cover for Local Natives' sophomore release Hummingbird, sees three figures, one of which barely hanging onto the edge of what appears to be a platform cast in a void of empty sky, perhaps there's a suggestion laying here that the band take to their particular flavor of breezy pop rock with more a hint of tribulation and, perhaps, struggle with their surroundings. While the idea of taking this sub-genre's sounds and turning it on its head doesn't necessarily come across as anything unique or different, you do often feel there's more to it potentially than just another 40-minute record spouting good vibes over indulgently-rich guitar:drum ratio checks. So through this, and as someone who would love to be the one making album covers in the near future, perhaps my interest is heightened in what kind of context this particular visual holds in the presence of Native's eleven track forty-minute offering of a follow-up.

You & I opens things with a very gentle sweep of guitar strums, synths quietly, and quite fondly, easing the backdrop with their sensual buzz in equal measure. Vocalist Taylor Rice comes straight to the forefront in a drastic clashing of forwarded vocals and a tone that immediately comes off as one of struggle but not necessarily trouble. The song's melody plays and toys with the guitar's breezy tones and the dusty echoing of strings continue to give the track a somewhat nostalgic aged sincerity to its output. 'The closer I get, the further I am to go to places we don't know', Rice ends the track, emphasizing the track's fairly longing deliverance and relation to its subject matter. So already, I'm getting a feeling of hesitance in simply spraying positivity at us, and on the following track Heavy Feet, percussion begins to build in momentum and its heavier deliverance once more conjures the likelihood that Rice's state of mind is far from feeling fine territory. But beyond the hefty drum hits, the production appears to favour blurring the guitars into a dazed-like state, emphasizing Rice's withdrawn remembrance that his vocal deliverance comes off in. Even when the track is at its minimal in use of guitars and somber violin accompaniments, there's still a sense of a foggy texture to how the vocals mesh with the instrumentation.

'I haven't stopped you smoking yet/So I'll share your cigarette/Just to feel you in my fingers' are the first words ushered on Ceilings, and this is perhaps the closest we've got to discovering Rice's true intentions in what it is he's hoping to reach, or perhaps claim for himself. Yet, the music itself doesn't express anything proclaiming or materialistic. Instead, the breezy rhythm of guitars and the dry padding of percussion conflict with what it is that Taylor himself is ushering. Thus, it projects a more conserved and enclosed state, setting up rather nicely for the harmonies later on to break free from out of this lulled state the music seems to dictate. And given this is the shortest track on the album, its formulaic hesitance to build, and then unveil its true intention through vocals, pays off rather well. And the lead into follower Black Spot could perhaps produce even more relevant mystery and anxiousness given the track starts, much unlike the tracks that have come before it, in such an unorthodox tension of piano keys that slowly fall beneath the waves of guitar strums. And while the latter instrumentation does offer some kind of calm to the overall intensity and emotion of the piece, the piano still controls the momentum of the song and the track continues this tense, slightly nervy rush of adrenaline. So given how the listener might be enticed to see how where this mood in the music goes, I can't help but feel confused - and ultimately disappointed - as to why it's not pushed further in the track. Instead it simply returns to this similar haze of guitar and drums that end up completely overlapping what maddening intensity the music has built up thus far.

Perhaps then we can assume that Local Natives are not one for prolonged indulgence of their music and simply go for an addressing of the situation, as opposed to an illustration of it. It's an assumption that is more than likely to stand true, but what worries me is that I feel this lack in dissecting their emotions and their moods will only limit what output the band can make, both on an emotional as well as a musical scale likewise. The track Breakers, however, does show Natives at their most extroverted within the pop rock entwining of genres. Guitars are a lot more livelier and the conflict between instruments makes for far better listening than the previous mellower safety of blurring all these layers together. But one of Native's most revealing, and perhaps melancholic, of emotion lies in the simply-built but well-executed Three Months. Here, a choppy drum beat leads - or perhaps simply accompanies - the somewhat frozen, static drop of piano chords. But it's Rice's more rich and tender vocal deliverance that stands out the most, and the directness in his voice makes the partial ambiguity in his words, along with the emotion it carries, work. The drum beat barely shifts or changes pattern, but it does enough to offer rhythm without being singled-out because of its repetitiveness - the drive of piano and Taylor's textured voice is what carves this track out and its revealed nature is what truly defines it in the long-run.

I just wish that the band's more lighter, more texturally richer tracks had as much focus on emotion and deliverance as these. The track Wooly Mammoth feels ever the more the biggest effort by Natives to rely - quite desperately - on layering and the end result rather than developing their own instrumentation and the relations between them. I find the coming together of instruments - the jagged strum of guitars alongside the cymbal crashes of percussion alongside the organ-like chimes amidst it all - doesn't necessarily create anything that feels impacting or relevant to what the band are trying to achieve. In the end, it just feels like more of the same from what I've experienced from earlier on, and it's rather whimpered ending only cements my state of mind about it. But when they are focused, as is the case with follower Mt. Washington, their guitar sounds are quite liberating in their reach. There is still some use of reverb and distortion in the track's overall mixing, but it's nothing that takes away from the bare honesty of the guitars and the harmonics that accompany it underneath. It's a fair balance between instrumentation and production, and it proves Natives can find that equilibrium if time is as much an investment as effects are. The closer Bowery plays on Native's use of piano and presents it in that familiar projection of hope and ambition without leaning too far into blind optimism. The execution of guitar shortly after do offer some more insight into vocalist's desired state of mind. And while his vocal deliverance doesn't necessarily match that same ambition, the music does come off in quite a connected understanding; piano notes and guitar strings matching really well with each other. The closing minutes of the track too do offer us some rougher, more extreme expression of mood through the conflicting of guitar - consistently calm harmonies remaining at that same level even against the pressure of guitar sounds and harder drum beats that lead the track off to its end.

A mixed bag is, as daft as this may come across, exactly that; a contrast of the successful and the not-so-successful in the context of music. What Local Natives have going for them, however, is their ability to see past the hopeful, cheery context of dream pop and actually take their music at face value; at its most emotional and engaging, and being able to focus on how to achieve that without necessarily drifting so care-free, and safely, into the positive half of that emotive spectrum. Hummingbird too has a lot going for it in contrast to many an album that aims to be so optimistic it's painful. There are the frequent, and quite evident, misuses of layering and mistaken choices in the production side of their tracks, but the melodies and harmonies are here and come across to great effect. But overall though, the band aren't at that particular point in their career that spells absolute perfection - and I say that with subjectivity, because...what is absolute perfection in today's World? - but rather they're somewhere on that road and heading, gladly, in the right direction. Let's hope they don't get homesick and decide to play things safe, which - here I speak rather objectively - can only mean one thing: happiness, bliss and overly joyous music galore.
~Jordan

7.0

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