Local Natives hit Oakland’s Fox Theatre with indie rock tracks from their new album

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If there’s one thing that wields the power to firmly establish or brutally shatter a band’s creative endurance in a transient music scene, it’s the sophomore release. Colossal amounts of hype tend to build over successful debuts – see The Strokes’ Is This It, Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights or the debut of really any early ‘00s band to receive the grandiose accusation of reviving music. Such hype can almost never be recreated and similar bombshell acts are typically destined for future duds.

However, on the debut from SoCal collective Local Natives, not much about their sound was wildly distinct from that of their peers like Fleet Foxes or The National. The melodies were gentle, the rhythms complex and the vocal harmonies consisted of nearly as many parts as there were band members.  Moreover, Local Natives didn’t explode onto the scene so much as meekly shamble onto it, only gaining notoriety in the years following their sleeper LP.  While this attention came a bit gradually, they definitely earned it; without destroying any boundaries, they played what they knew, and they did it elegantly.

With their follow-up Hummingbird, the Natives manage to emphasize their tendencies toward melodic indie pop hooks while also playing up their ambient undertones. Their music is more dynamic than before but also less energetic on the whole.  As a result, their first post-release show last Wednesday at the Fox Theatre (reputedly the largest venue the group has ever played at, as well as the first in Oakland) proved to be a mixed bag.  Quite a few slow songs were tossed in with the more percussive and lively tunes. The latter incited a surprising amount of motion in the crowd considering the crossed-armed blank stares more suited to the ever-so-hip majority in attendance.

The opener “You & I,” the first track off the new LP, showcased the band’s impressive execution resulting from their practice playing on smaller stages over the past few years. Co-lead singer Kelcey Ayer displayed his vocal chops with his not-quite-whiney wail as he clung to the high notes and relished the falsetto. When Ayer resigned to keyboard or percussion duties, vocals were passed along to singer/guitarist Taylor Rice, who flexibly crooned while sporting perhaps the most ironic mustache since Dali.

Following their pretty but somewhat faithless rendition of “Warning Sign” by Talking Heads, Local Natives dove into some of the calmer waters found on Hummingbird. “Black Spot” had Ayer jamming on the keyboard as fast as possible, sounding a bit like Bon Iver trying to play “Chopsticks” while severely coked up. The first half of the song was stripped to piano and vocals with some bass and noodling guitars in the background. As the drums and backing vocalists crept in, the song steadily built to a climax that revealed the band’s increased aptitude for (though not quite mastery of) ornate build-ups.

On the china-fragile “Colombia,” Ayer’s words were like audible teardrops as he pleaded the refrain, “Patricia, every night I’ll ask myself / Am I giving enough?” This song proved to be the most poignant performance of the evening, much like its role on the album. Still, this role is something of an oxymoron: it’s one of the slowest songs of the batch, yet it’s also among the most accessible. Realistically, and to the horror of any Pitchfork-sourced fan to realize and subsequently deny it, “Colombia” wouldn’t sound out of place amid a set of songs by The Fray. But, if anything, this shows a growth in Local Natives’ songwriting. Just as the opaque and intricate don’t necessarily indicate quality, the straightforward and unadorned don’t indicate weakness. As Freud never said, sometimes a ballad is just a ballad.

While the concert was noticeably well paced in terms of the setlist, transitions between songs were often a little awkward. More curtly informative than engaging, their spoken interactions with the crowd were brisk and didn’t really any rapport. Theaters the size of the Fox seem somewhat foreign to them, and it came across in their body language that they were slightly uncomfortable outside their native locality.

In the same way that Local Natives typify modern indie rock, their apparent discomfort embodied the genre’s main contradiction. It’s strange how something as popular as the indie movement can also be so averse to the flashiness of other popular music.  Self-awareness seems to be key. For instance, the stage was completely free of decorations, barren apart from the band which rarely took up more space than was required to sit still and strum or drum. Coupled with their humble demeanor, this gave them the look of a local band who had wandered into the spotlight. Of course, considering their name, this was probably no accident.

However, these Natives are the very same ones whose album stream recently topped the front page of iTunes for a week — the album itself landed solidly in the store’s top 15 most downloaded. While “Top 15” might not swing as much clout as “Top 10” or “No. 1” for that matter, it still proves that they are a band on the brink of potential success, and the sounds of Hummingbird seem to indicate that they are coming to terms with this. Some say selling out; others say maturing. Regardless, Local Natives are in more minds and iPods than ever before, and with good reason: they’re actually quite talented.

Contact Erik at [email protected].