Reinventing reverb in rock

Taylor Rice, shown here performing in Minneapolis in 2010, is a vocalist and guitarist in Local Natives.  (credit: Courtesy of Derrick Austinson Photog via Flickr) Taylor Rice, shown here performing in Minneapolis in 2010, is a vocalist and guitarist in Local Natives. (credit: Courtesy of Derrick Austinson Photog via Flickr)

When the Local Natives announced the imminent release of their second album Hummingbird, amongst the wild cheers of twenty-somethings in skinny jeans everywhere, two questions arose.

The first question: How would the band function in the studio setting without former bassist Andy Hamm? The Local Natives have had a successful tour and are set to perform at Coachella in April, but how would a more transcendental and less-grounded sound fare against inevitable comparisons to the smash-hit first album Gorilla Manor? (Answer: Very, very well. But more on this later.)

The more far-reaching question remains. In 2010, critics at Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere took great pains to compare the Local Natives’ debut album Gorilla Manor to every popular indie band out there. And who can blame them? That year was indie rock’s renaissance, with The Black Keys’ Brothers, Vampire Weekend’s Contra, and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, which won the Grammy for Best Album. But the fact is that Gorilla Manor sounded as if it had taken all the good aspects of every popular indie band and made it into an album — a great one, to be sure, but nothing wholly original.

This is not to say that the Local Natives consciously take ideas from other indie bands and incorporate them into songs like “Bowery” — which, since we’re already talking about comparisons to other bands, sounds like something from a Shins album. Okay, a really good Shins album. But with Hummingbird, did the Local Natives create something fresh and new?

Yes, they did — but not in the way you’d expect.

Like many popular alternative rock albums of the 21st century, the Local Natives’ new effort sounds very much as if it were produced in a studio, with an ample amount of reverb on tracks like heart-wrenching “You & I” and dense rock-out session “Wooly Mammoth.” But indie rock is such a vague category, with such a broad spectrum, that there are no telling aspects of the genre: One can only compare certain types of sounds among bands in the genre, and the studio-produced feel of popular albums is one of the few general staples of the modern incarnation of the genre.

The sound in Hummingbird is slightly brighter and at times more rhythmically complex than that in Gorilla Manor: It’s richer, rounder, more somber, and more subtle. Kelcey Ayer’s vocals ride the tracks like gulls on thermals, proving especially powerful in thickly orchestrated songs like “Black Spot” and “Wooly Mammoth.” However, the band saves the better lyrics for songs where you can actually hear them, like in “Colombia.” But the band’s philosophy has ultimately remained unchanged: Listeners can easily make the same comparisons to Arcade Fire and Animal Collective that they could make with Local Natives’ previous album. And that is perfectly all right.

Much of the new album’s smooth powerhouse aesthetic and sweet production quality can be attributed to the band’s unofficial new fifth member: Aaron Dessner of The National. While not a replacement for Hamm in any respect, Dessner brought some songwriting muscle to the table and, more importantly, helped record and produce Hummingbird in his Brooklyn apartment.

Hummingbird presents positive proof that, yes, there’s nothing new under the sun. But a band can use that knowledge to their advantage. The Local Natives show that they don’t need to pull the Animal Collective card out and change their sound every album in order to sell out venues internationally.