Much of the stuff that passes for pop music today might have sounded like dance or club music just ten years ago. Pop music in general seems to be moving in a darker direction complete with angst and a tab bit of gloom. When it’s not dark or too pondering and rooted in rock, it can be quite rewarding. As a seemingly shrinking sub-genre, upbeat, thinking man’s (or woman’s) pop from bands like Friendly Fires, Keane or even Band of Horses always get my attention (maybe not so much Band of Horses anymore).
Lately a California band Local Natives has captured my attention. It’s not like they were on Extra or in the headlines recently. They are not necessarily new as they have been around since 2005 and released three good to great albums. The second one Hummingbird from 2013 stuck out for me. It was produced by Aaron Dessner the guitarist from The National. In addition to bringing some of the goodness of The National to the project, his influence helped iron out some trauma the band was experiencing with the departure of one of it’s original members and a death of a band member’s mother.
Musically Hummingbird contains all the catchy hooks and melodies that made their first album Gorilla Manor such a success with music critics. Hummingbird may be more enjoyable because it has intricate melodies that come out of a need to experiment away from the safety of re-creating studio music on stage. It also has some of the most beautiful vocal harmonies outside of The Fleet Foxes. The tracks “Columbia” and “Ceilings” are just two of many perfect examples of a beautifully structured pop songs on this album.
Lead vocals are handled by Taylor Rice and Kelcey Ayer. Both nasel voices sound frail and vulnerable, but when they cross over, they create wonderful harmonies reminiscent of The Fleet Foxes or the Darcys.
The melodies and harmonies are anchored by solid beats. Tracks like “Heavy Feet” and “Black Ballons” are rhythmic and dynamic. The bright upbeat vibe hides the fact that much of the song writing deals with more adult issues, but does so with a kind of optimism missing in most pop.
Hummingbird has been Local Natives most visible album to date, peaking at #12 in the winter of 2013. That was encouraging news when the typical pop song even back then was either rap or some hybrid of dance/pop/R&B. The followup, 2016’s Sunlit Youth did not do as well, but nearly made it into the top 20. So far Hummingbird is the sweet spot in this promising band’s small catalog.