The US release of Gorilla Manor, the debut LP from the LA quintet Local Natives, has been a long time coming. The album itself was recorded over a year ago and the band spent much of 2009 building word-of-mouth buzz and working to secure a record deal the old-fashioned way: by being a stellar live band. Rough Trade actually released Gorilla Manor in the UK three months ago, which has allowed the album to circulate widely via imports and pirating. This has only served to build even more buzz the newfangled way: blog hype.
The blog hype shouldn’t come as any surprise, as Local Natives’ music is very much a patchwork quilt of indie rock’s more recent success stories. Their group harmonies nod to Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear, their percussive tendencies are clearly indebted to Animal Collective, and their guitar breakdowns most likely stem from a love of My Morning Jacket. To Local Natives’ credit, they manage to seamlessly distill all these elements into genuinely thrilling songs that showcase an almost telepathic level of group musicianship.
With its impassioned chants of “I love it all so much / I call / I want you back,” “Airplanes” feels destined to be one of 2010’s biggest heartstring-tuggers. It’s ostensibly a love letter to vocalist/keyboardist Kelcey Ayer’s departed grandfather: “I did not know you as well / as my father knew you…. I bet when I leave my body for the sky / the wait will be worth it.” The rousing piano-led tune is worthy of Paul McCartney, but deftly avoids the sappiness and schmaltz often associated with the cute Beatle. Basically, it’s the kind of song that begs for unironic singalongs.
Gorilla Manor is a pretty front-loaded affair. The four best tracks constitute the first third of the album. After the dazzling run of “Wide Eyes”, “Airplanes”, “Sun Hands”, and “World News”, the rest of the album charts an inconsistent course. While there are a few other high points (“Stranger Things”, “Shape Shifter”, “Camera Talk”), the rest can’t help but seem limp and underwritten in comparison. Although its inclusion is questionable, their kinetic cover of the Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” reveals an unexpected influence and helps drag the album out of its second-half slump.
Further evidence of the Talking Heads influence can be found, but it’s far subtler. The majority of the songs on Gorilla Manor are built around grooves. The drums are, more often than not, the first thing you hear on a song, and the rhythm section will inevitably steer the whole composition. Local Natives aren’t busting out African polyrhythms just yet, but an echo of early Talking Heads is definitely there. “Wide Eyes” and “Sun Hands” both pulse with a dramatic urgency that sadly appears only once more on “Warning Sign”. In the moments where Local Natives flash their rhythmic dexterity, they truly shine.
Gorilla Manor is a solid and promising debut, but it can come across like it was all conceived by an algorithm designed to mine and and refine indie rock’s most fashionable trends. I’m not accusing Local Natives of disingenuousness, but too often their music feels like a simulacrum of ‘00s indie. Then again, songs as sincerely moving as “Airplanes” and “Stranger Things” render that line of criticism pretty moot. If they continue writing songs of that ilk and forge a sound less beholden to their influences, they should be able to avert the bullshit called blog backlash.