It is just possible, with a small amount of retrospection, that Local Natives can be regarded as being an example of the ‘American Sound’of the early 21st Century. This sound often features haunting vocals, syncopated rhythms, dramatic guitars, and melancholy beatnik lyrics which, I admit, is not as easy to identify as perhaps punk or reggae is. And descriptions such as ‘psych-folk’ are simply vague. Perhaps a list of some of the better-known bands that adopt this ‘sound’ will probably provide a clearer idea: The National, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, to name a few. And it just so happens that the Local Natives have opened for The National and Arcade Fire, and that The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessinger has produced the Natives’ second album, Hummingbirds. There’ll be a supergroup next, I’m sure.
Aaron Dessigner’s production has certainly brought a sophistication of textures in contrast to 2009’s more light-hearted debut Gorilla Manor. More than anything Hummingbirds is an American record with American influences and sounds. On opener ‘You and I’, we are greeted by swashing Hawaiian guitars and a soaring lead vocal that has echoes of Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. The rather lovely ‘Heavy Feet’ features abstract lyrics that hint at a lost summer love, reminiscent of Pet Sounds/Smile-era Beach Boys. Musically, the Beach Boys are strangely omnipotent such as in the rollercoaster harmonies of ‘Breakers’ which evoke ‘Cabinessence’ from Smile while ‘Columbia’ signs off with some haunting Brian Wilson-on-acid cellos.
Lyrically, there are moments of American Beatnik, with unexpected turns of phrase, quirkiness (‘Black Spot’, for example, is no metaphor), tenderness and bohemian imagery. It is this imagery that is oftenromanticised by tame cliches such as referring to burning cigarettes, walking the empty streets late at night and ‘eating cold cereal and watching tv before I go to sleep.As beatnik imagery goes it is more stoner school boy with the munchies than William Burroughs’ Junky.
Instead, Ayres’ is at his strongest when writing personal lyrics with simple yet loaded questions, such as on the album highlight, ‘Columbia’. Written in memory of his dying mother, the songs opens with the evocative ‘the day after I counted your breaths down till there were none/ A hummingbird crashed in front of me and I understood what you did for us, which is sang over a simple piano and drum machine before the music swells over an enduring question to his mother, ‘Am I giving enough?’. It is a question that could be addressing anything from an existential crisis to artistic integrity, or simply love and kindness towards others. Overall, it makes for an almost ‘classic anthem’ if not for the rather straight-forward melody. Indeed, the album as a whole is almost a great one; full of wonderful moments over mostly unmemorable songs. Local Natives may now be an established part of a new modern American rock ‘n’ roll, but they will need to keep searching for that one truly great song if they wish to enter into the all-enduring American songbook.