It didn't take long for me to find my favorite album of 2013. Hummingbird, the sophomore effort from Los Angeles based band Local Natives, was released in late January and I knew immediately from the first listen it was destined to place high on my Best Albums of the Year list. I was not much of a fan of their debut Gorilla Manor. Although it was well received critically and put them on the map, it didn't do much for my musical tastes. So to say my reaction to Hummingbird was unexpected is an understatement.
This album brought with it some change for Local Natives. First, they parted ways with bassist Andy Hamm. But the move that drew the most attention was moving from self-producing their debut to enlisting the help of Aaron Dessner to produce the follow-up. Dessner is one of the key members of the highly critically acclaimed band The National, and you can hear his influence on this album. Whereas Gorilla Manor had a much more psychedelic folk-rock sound, Hummingbird puts a major emphasis on melodic rock.
The other major emphasis on this album is one of sadness and loss. There are still tracks like "Heavy Feet" and "Breakers" that call to mind their debut with sunny harmonies and more upbeat moments. But it is the slower, more subdued material that strikes the heavier impact. Lyrically, things also take a heavier turn starting with the opening track "You & I", an exploration of a relationship on its way to crashing down. 'When did your love grow cold? The closer I get, the farther I have to go', sings Kelcey Ayer in his affecting falsetto. The band's trademark vocal harmonies are still all over Hummingbird, lifting up other strong, yet sorrowful songs as "Ceilings" and "Black Spot". The somber "Mt. Washington" is another personal favorite with its moaning guitars.
At the emotional center of Hummingbird is the very difficult topic of the passing of Ayer's mother. Her death, coming three months after Hamm's less than amicable parting with the band, is addressed first on the track "Three Months". It's not hard to decipher lyrics like 'I keep on calling just to get the machine, I've got to go on now, having thought this wasn't your last year'. Ayer's falsetto cries in the chorus are incredibly affecting on this gorgeous piano based ballad.
However, even "Three Months" did not prepare me for the emotional wallop that is "Colombia", titled as such because Ayer's mother was Colombian. Starting with sparse electronic beats, the song is another piano heavy piece with an incredibly moving vocal performance. Ayer addresses his mother's passing, and looks inward, questioning himself, first repeatedly asking 'Am I giving enough?', then 'Am I loving enough?' as he looks back at his mother's life and the love she gave her son. Reflecting on his mother's life and confronting whether he is living up to the kindness she brought into his life and the world? Needless to say, this one never fails to move me to tears. The ending, when he personalizes his questions by prefacing them with the name Patricia is heartbreakingly sad, yet beautiful at the same time. "Colombia" is a powerhouse of a song, carrying a tremendous emotional impact.
I can usually tell upon first listen when I have come across one of those special albums and Hummingbird certainly fit that description. I said in my original review it had Album of the Year potential written all over it. Nothing else released in 2013 was able to surpass it for me personally, so that potential was realized.
Favorite tracks: "Colombia", "Mt. Washington", "You & I", "Ceilings"
Hummingbird was released January 29, 2013 via Frenchkiss Records.