Like that hot guy who works in the wood shop around the corner, Local Natives’ debut LP Gorilla Manor is most attractive at its messiest. Replete with sweet piano, duetting guitars, and insistent drumming, the California quintet paints a mostly pretty picture. But it’s when they veer away from pretty that things get adorably hairy.
Loud leadoff “Wide Eyes,” therefore, deceives a little. It’s a wooly, wholly engaging way to be dropped into their music, employing, if fleetingly, three-against-four counterpoint that pushes and pulls the listener’s attention toward the dark backup vocals and confessional lyricism that characterize the album. Echoing and apprehensive, it layers two intertwining guitar melodies atop one another and even contains a barreling drum-break B-section that disassembles the song into its component parts before building it back up again. But the other tracks are hard-pressed to match its its kineticism, its draw, because Local Natives only take such rhythmic risks sparingly.
Much of Gorilla Manor resides securely in clean-shaven, emotional ballad territory. “Airplanes,” for example, rests on string-section backing and pervasive vocal harmonies to flesh out its “I want you back” second-person narrative. Other tracks read like a college freshman’s diary — “World News” paints a character portrait by mentioning NPR and the fact that when its subject’s phone rings, a picture of her mother shows up on it. But both “Airplanes” and “World News” also demonstrate Local Natives’ mastery of dynamic building to give a topographical profile to their songwriting. Though lacking poignant observational lyrics (and frequently flirting with the trite), the band certainly has a theatrical ear that gives the record real altitude.
This is because, at its peaks, Gorilla Manor possesses a dark, spiraling beauty. Driving numbers like “Sun Hands,” “Wide Eyes,” and “Shape Shifter” feature drummer Matt Frazier front and center: exactly where he belongs. He switches styles from song to song and within the pieces themselves, alternately trying on tribal (“Stranger Things”), disco (“Camera Talk”), or even rockabilly/psychobilly (“Sun Hands”) hats, all kick drum and rim-taps. Sure, because of this, Local Natives can sound like other percussion-centric acts like The Dodos. But if we’re making that argument, then we should acknowledge how terrifyingly similar keyboardist Kelcey Ayer’s vocal delivery during “Cubism Dream” sounds to Jump, Little Children’s Jay Clifford. What’s the point? And behind the crooning choruses, noodling piano, and heavy bass of “Shape Shifter,” there’s rattling, chaotic percussion à la Bon Iver that gives the song another of the album’s occasional, scintillating glimpses of reckless abandon.
“Sun Hands” also devolves, for the first time on the record, into a gut-grinding group-sing before returning to the pretty “Ah”s to which the band cleaves. They have such a moment again during their cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign,” when the whole group seems to channel The Arcade Fire for a matter of seconds as they chant together over punk guitars. Then, as if it had never happened, the light switch flips and the texture returns to its smooth bassline. You could argue that the unkempt moments pack more punch because of their rarity. There are entire tracks on Gorilla Manor that gamble absolutely nothing; “Who Knows Who Cares” and “Stranger Things” could’ve been made by any clean-shaven top-40 piano crooner (that is, except for the 30 seconds during “Who Knows Who Cares” in which Frazier goes completely ballistic on the toms). But for a band that so obviously has a starved knack for the compellingly insane, more is more. Letting themselves go with greater frequency would turn what is a pretty record into one that actually breaks ground; it’d be sexier that way.