Last year, debut albums from The xx, Girls, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Cymbals Eat Guitars deservedly took places on many of year-end best-of lists; similarly, 2008 gave us fantastic debuts from Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver.
Now come Local Natives, a Los Angeles by way of Orange County group of pure pop harmonizers whose debut album seems destined to appear on many 2010 best-of lists.
Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss Records) is an atmospheric, light album of lush melodies, three-part harmonies and delicate, clean instrumentation—with just enough moments of tension and outbursts to transcend its catatonic potential. Guitarists Taylor Rice and Ryan Hahn and keyboardist Kelcey Ayer provide the album's harmonies, with their voices melding to soar or tremble with remarkable clarity and precision. Meanwhile, Matt Frazier fills the album with drumming that is as much sticks and rims as skins and cymbals, while Andy Hamm's bass locks down a tight rhythm section.
The album's awkward title is actually the nickname of the house that the band shared in Orange County. In the band's biography on the Frenchkiss Records Web site, Hahn noted the house "was insanely messy, and there were always friends over knocking around on guitars or our thrift-store piano."
Upon first listen, it may be tough to compare Gorilla Manor—with its mannered, crisp songs—to the fevered residence; however, there are moments (the beginning of "Airplanes" and the chorus of the Talking Heads cover "Warning Sign") when the band allows themselves to get sloppy and slightly unhinged with a melody or vocal harmony.
Frazier spoke, via e-mail, about the band's recording process, which is as democratic as it comes; the album credits do not list individual songwriters, nor do they even mention who sings or plays what on the album.
"Every facet of the band is an extremely collaborative effort, including the writing process," Frazier wrote. "Each song comes to fruition in its own individual way since it's all five of us working out each song rather than just one or two main songwriters working out everything."
The collaboration is perhaps most clear on a song like the fantastic "Camera Talk," with its persistent drum beat coolly backing swirling violin (courtesy of Amanda Salazar), swaying vocal quirks and chugging guitar lines.
Thanks to songs that are lilting and ethereal, yet with a substantial backbone because of the sturdy presence of Frazier and Hamm, Gorilla Manor is a hypnotic work. The album has a somewhat timeless quality to it that connects the band readily to outfits like Simon and Garfunkel and even Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The stunning "Airplanes" is an indelible pop song that crafts its chorus of "I want you back" around a whirlwind of gently building rhythms and crashing breaks, while "Sun Hands," is a slinking, explosive paean.
Much of Gorilla Manor sounds like the work of wizened veterans. Consider a song like the opener, "Wide Eyes," which balances dark moments musically (in a descending guitar riff) and lyrically ("Oh some evil spirit / Oh some evil this way comes") with an almost tribal breakdown midsong.
Frazier explains why the 12 tracks of Gorilla Manor are so sonically rich: "A song can stem from a simple line on the piano, vocal melody or even be demoed-out entirely by one of us before being flipped on its head a million times by the rest of the band."
Local Natives came together in a piecemeal fashion over the years. Hahn, Rice and Ayer have played music together since high school, with Frazier and Hamm joining "about 4 or 5 years ago." The album, released domestically in February, was actually the result of years of fine-tuning.
"We tinkered around with our sound and overall aesthetic for a couple of years," Frazier wrote. "It wasn't until we started recording the album in 2008 that we felt like we had found something cohesive and that made sense to us."
Lyrically, the songs focus on peculiar metaphors or imagery (consider titles like "Sun Hands," "Cubism Dream" and "Shape Shifter"), giving them an almost universal pop appeal. Of course, Frazier notes, the lyrics are also a joint effort. "Again, it's kind of a song-by-song basis and could stem from any one member. It's just a bit less collaborative. The last thing we want is for the songs to become impersonal."
Gorilla Manor consistently displays Local Natives' care and attention to detail. Another standout, "Who Knows Who Cares," builds from a light vocal incantation and a plinking piano melody into a more exultant affair, with sweeping violin, crashing drums, distorted guitars and collective, harmonious shouts. On that song and on the entire album, the professionalism far surpasses anything an upcoming pop band should be capable of on a first outing.
"I think making music for a living has definitely been on all of our minds since we were kids," Frazier wrote.
Local Natives' music conspicuously suggests such focus and drive, and with an extensive tour that kicks off at Coachella ("Needless to say, we're ecstatic!") with Tucson as the second stop, it is beginning to pay dividends.
"(Making music) definitely wasn't a spontaneous thing for any of us," Frazier wrote.