‘Hummingbird' offers hint of spring to come

by Kyle McGoey | 2/17/13 11:00pm

It's been a quiet winter in the music world. Perhaps the months after Christmas are the music industry's dog days of summer, those brutal days in July and August when all interesting sports have finished their seasons and the only sport on TV is regular season baseball.

Maybe musicians and winter do not mix well, and all of our favorite bands are locked up in their lofts, waiting for spring to be sprung. But fear not, for the Los Angeles indie rockers Local Natives have brought us "Hummingbird," released on Jan. 29, the perfect soundtrack for a tranquil Hanover winter.

If you haven't heard of Local Natives, I don't blame you, but I highly recommend you give them a chance. Their 2009 debut "Gorilla Manor" was summer music through and through: all bouncing beats, slinky guitar and soaring falsetto. But from the first chorus of opener "You and I," which reenacts the death of a relationship over a driving digital beat, it is clear that this is a winter album if there ever was one. "In all this light, all I feel is dark/ had the sun without its warmth/ I'm freezing," Kelcey Ayer sings, and it's clear that this will not be an album for driving around with the windows down.

Instead, it is perfect for a midnight trudge across a snowy and mostly deserted campus. Echo-filled, insular and beautiful, "Hummingbird" is best suited for the headphones that act as my earmuffs pretty much every time I step outside.

The vocal interplay of Ayer and Taylor Rice has always been Local Natives' biggest strength, and they do well to highlight the vocals on many of this album's tracks.

At the risk of sounding flowery, both have magnificent voices, and they alternate vocal duties throughout the album, working equally well on plaintive solo verses and soaring shared refrains.

"Three Months" is an exercise in building tension with seemingly unresolved melodies and a cycling piano figure floating over a beat that never quite fits. "Ceilings," on the other hand, is perfectly formed, built on a bouncing beat and swelling group harmonies that may be as sunny and sweet as this album ever gets.

My friends often tune me out when I start to ramble about how important the bass is to rock music (which happens disturbingly often), but the loss of bass player Andy Hamm is definitely noticeable on "Hummingbird." Drummer Matt Frazier's beats can at times be a bit chaotic, and where they lock in with Hamm's bass lines to drive "Gorilla Manor" standouts like "Wide Eyes" and "Airplanes," here they sometimes threaten to send songs flying off the rails.

"Heavy Feet" is a haunted lament to a lost love, like a companion piece to Lana del Rey's love letter "Video Games" written after that song's teenage romance feel has fallen apart. But where "Games" sustained itself on sweeping strings and slow-burn martial drums, Frazier's manic snares throw things off, distracting from Ayer's stunning vocals. "Wooly Mammoth" and "Bowery" are similarly frantic, but everything gels better, and the rhythmic gambles pay off in the almost involuntary foot tapping they provoke.

On "Breakers," Rice and Ayer take the backseat, allowing Frazier's best drum work of the album to shine. His dynamic volume shifts and crashing refrains recall the National's Bryan Devendorf, who I think is one of the best drummers in modern indie rock.

Coincidentally, Devendorf's bandmate Aaron Dessner produced many of the "Hummingbird" tracks, and his sonic touch really allows the band's talent to shine through.

And then there's "Colombia": the song so good I saved it for last. A stirring lament to Ayer's late mother, "Colombia" is certainly the best song on "Hummingbird," and perhaps the best in the band's discography. "If you never felt all of my love, I pray now you do," Ayer calls to his mother, before a powerful moment of self-examination in which he asks himself: "Am I loving enough? Am I giving enough?" It's a beautiful song, poignant and inspiring in its message of honoring and following our parents' examples.

In the end, the best description of "Hummingbird" may come from the lyrics of "Sun Hands," a track off their debut. When Rice sings, "I'll endure the night/ for the promise of light," it becomes clear that the melancholia that pervades "Hummingbird" is not a permanent condition. Instead, it is a necessary retreat from the sun, just as a new day can only come out of the darkness of night.

Only time will tell if Local Natives is ready to step out into the sunlight again, or if they have more exploring to do in the darkness. If "Hummingbird" is any indication, this band excels at finding beauty even in low light.