Booo! That’s what you hear Los Angeles indie quintet Local Natives shouting in the beginning of second song and minor “hit” of the album: “Airplanes”. I think no one booed when they released their debut, Gorilla Manor, in the UK back in November 2009. The only reason anyone would have to boo about was that it wasn’t released in the US until February this year. Right from the eminent beginning track “Wide Eyes” you can hear why Local Natives was to be one of the most hyped and praised bands in anticipation of the new decade. I guess the band somehow had their tongues in their cheeks when they were humble enough to boo at themselves in the beginning of “Airplanes”.
The opening song has been widely recognized as one of the group’s finest efforts, and it’s definitely true that “Wide Eyes” is one of the most captivating songs made by a band even remotely associated with the progressively de-centralized term “indie rock” in recent memory. It does not only stand as an apt signature to the sound of Local Natives, but also to the ongoing trend from a slew of bands dabbling their indie rock brushes in various genres to paint a picture that at first look is hopelessly blue. Of course, it’s almost always a little more nuanced than that in the scene of buzzable indie rock, and Local Natives is by far no exception. As a band, they’re also more nuanced than just the sum of their contemporaries and supposed influences.
An emotional depth and baroque undertones are the lowest common denominators Local Natives share with Arcade Fire. The recurring soft, delicate guitar work might resemble Vampire Weekend’s afrobeat plucking, but it could just as well have been compared to that of Real Estate (the soft and resounding guitar on “Wide Eyes”) or Foals (the rather complex patterns of “Sun Hands” for that matter). And if you’re to deduce that every band sporting decorative and expressive vocal harmonies has something to do with Fleet Foxes, you’re kind of on the wrong track. Nope, The Dodos or Grizzly Bear won’t do as reasonable comparisons, either.
Still, there is a reason why Local Native resemble so many bands at a time. Gorilla Manor sounds derivative indeed– derivative enough to appeal to a bigger indie audience. I suspect Local Natives have refrained from compromising with their vision in the sessions at their manor. This debut works so well despite its lack of originality because there’s a sense that Local Natives have been working inwards and out from a certain trend, sound, or genre in contemporary indie rather than having it as a goal. Gorilla Manor awakens the hipster from the early 00’s that was once screaming for authenticity inside us all.
Authenticity is written all over the band. Down-to-earth arrangements bring clattering melodies, rhythms, and harmonies into your mind without overdoing it. They’re downright catchy meets humble choirs delivering earnest lyrics about being young and in a band and whatnot. As you may guess by now, Local Natives should probably sound like home for any indie fan, but I’d like to shatter that pretension immediately. Gorilla Manor is not an album playing safe, calculating inspirations and musical factors to fit into any popular template of the moment. It’s a complete accident it ended up there, fitting perfectly and leading into hype. Local Natives is a bud sprung from its own secluded, protected crack in indie rock.
With that irreproachable foundation the band crafts songs inspiring contemplation that leaves you more confused than dazed. The fleeting memories of sensations and impressions of traveling on second single “Camera Talking”, a sincere longing for a girlfriend conveyed through a webcam chat that is described as “the most beautiful squares I’d ever seen” in “Cubism Dream” or the snapshot story of receiving domestic and world news on the way home in a car in the slowly building “World News” are all charming examples that arouse some compassion in the listener. Like receiving postcards from friends or family, Local Natives deliver short stories or perspectives on more vague and abstract sensations and themes (such as the confusing but alluringly hazy lyrics on the instrumentally impressive “Shape Shifter”) that we cherish and put up on our refrigerators for a while. There are other compelling indie rock albums that have hung in there, reminding us every day since their release as we pass by them of their grand emotional value: Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Sufjan Stevens’ llinoise are two such examples. Gorilla Manor, for all its extremely adequate instrumentation and intelligent-emotional value will not and should not be thrown away and forgotten but instead carefully bundled with other notable efforts and saved in some drawer to be taken out and admired for later.
So, this is still not an album for all indie fans only wanting a safe card to play at home in the background to feel relevant — it’s not the sound of “home” even though the music is easily pigeonholed and close to heart for the fans. The truth is Gorilla Manor is completing a circle, its end leaving a sense of returning home from a trip of the subtlest enlightenment and bittersweet revelations. Just that is a victory in its own right on a fairly unoriginal album where there’s many things to love. But it’s still far from a mindblowing debut.