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April 24, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The remaining members of California-based Local Natives were at a crossroads. After the success of their debut record Gorilla Manor, the group became darlings of the rock community. The blend of world music instrumentation and indie-rock songwriting made the group an instant standout. But their fans were unaware of the darkness behind the lush soundscapes of mandolin and soaring harmonies.
Where: The Blue Note
When: April 29, 8:30 p.m.
“We were going through a bit of a transition making this second album,” guitarist Ryan Hahn says.
“There was a change in the lineup, and it looked like a definite rocky patch there for a while.”
After drummer Andy Hahn, Ryan’s brother, left the band and chief songwriter Kelcey Ayer lost his mother, the group sank into a self-described “existential funk.” These losses, coupled with the constant fatigue of life on the road, contributed to the band’s state, Ryan says.
The change is immediately noticeable on Hummingbird, the group’s sophomore release with more muted and melancholy sounds. The cheerful percussion and jangly guitar work of their debut album is replaced with mournful piano and sighing insecurity in the vocals.
Despite the sonic shifts, Ryan doesn’t see the songs as downbeat. “These songs are more of a celebration of life,” he says. Faced with adversity, the band stayed true to themselves during a period of loss.
The balance of rich, warm and loud that has become The National’s calling card now belongs in Local Native’s repertoire. The droning feedback and multilayered guitar tones are instantly recognizable on Hummingbird cuts such as “Wooly Mammoth” and “Black Spot.”
Ryan credits the evolution of the band’s sound to the band members’ rigorous touring schedule. The group opened for stadium-filling acts including Kings of Leon and caught the eye of The National’s Aaron Dessner. “Working with him really expanded our palate,” Ryan says. “On our first record, it was more about going into the studio and banging out songs as fast as we could. Now, on this second record, it was more about feeling out the space and emphasizing our harmonies.”
The band has roared back from its emotional troubles and gained an expansive following. Hummingbird reached the No. 12 slot on the Billboard charts, and the group is booking more prestigious venues after performing at SXSW in Austin. Rachel Moore, an MU freshman and longtime fan, got to meet the band backstage. She’s part of a growing fanbase attracted to the group’s songwriting maturity and complexity of its live sound.
“(Local Natives) has definitely grown in terms of popularity over the past couple of years,” Moore says. “They’re pretty diverse in what they do on stage,” she says. “They’ll trade instruments and swap harmony parts during the set.”
The band also prides its DIY sensibility. From designing their own cover art to collaborating on stage lighting, the group members get involved in all aspects of the Local Natives experience. “Everything except the actual production itself was probably done by one of the band members,” Ryan says.
The group’s maturation and dedication has paid dividends, as the West Coast collective looks to make its mark on a growing Columbia audience.
“I know at least five other people on my floor who know about them, and there’s always more people that seem to enjoy them,” Moore says. “Once you play SXSW, it means people are starting to listen to you more.”
5 Hummingbird Hits
1. “You & I”
Clattering percussion and swelling orchestral tones build under singer Kelcey Ayer’s falsetto to create a vivid snapshot of loss in Hummingbird’s opening track.
An ode to Ayer’s recently deceased mother, the song is sensitive and supple with acoustic guitar lines and stately piano tones that develop into a climax of mournful vocals and fluttering strings.
3. “Heavy Feet”
A track clearly influenced by The National’s role in Hummingbird, “Heavy Feet” depicts two directionless lovers. Their love story contrasts the rich soundscape and deep layers of electric rumble and circular drum patterns. These sounds create momentum that the pair clearly isn’t ready to embrace.
Hummingbird’s first single is a convincing table-setter and bold statement to challenge fellow indie-rock bands like Arcade Fire or The National.
5. “Mt. Washington”
Skeletal guitar patterns give way to ominous, pulsing electronic textures. The track devolves into a mantra of “I don’t have to see you right now,” with explicit references to death and denial.