Local Natives Hit Home with “Sunlit Youth”
Christian Bunker | Thursday, September 22, 2016
Every so often an album comes out that gets everyone talking — not just because of how good it is, but because it is so radically different from everything else. Such albums sound as if they came from another planet, or at least David Byrne’s basement. The new Local Natives album, “Sunlit Youth,” is not one of these albums. Instead, the five young men from Los Angeles known as Local Natives have given us a record that is a veritable potpourri of alternative FM radio over the last decade. From sleek synths to vocal harmonies to acoustic intros, this LP certainly has all its bases covered. Of course, nine out of 10 times the result of this derivative songwriting would be the kind of generic garbage they play at South Dining Hall, but shockingly, this album works. It’s not a ‘great record’ per se, but it works, combining disparate influences to create what’s undeniably an enjoyable 45 minutes.
Let’s look more closely at how the band brings together many different threads on this record. One significant feature is a definite trend towards electronics. This is established by the opening song, “Villainy,” which feels like it would fit right in on MGMT’s “Oracular Spectacular.” Two tracks later, “Dark Days” continues the electronic theme, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. In contrast with Villainy’s energetic pop, the song’s somber atmosphere, male-female duet and catchy guitar lick evoke The xx’s “Crystalised.” The result is one of the most engaging tracks on the album. The harmonies in all four of the earliest tracks also hint at Fleet Foxes, especially “Past Lives,” but this influence is finally fully realized in the wordless harmony and acoustic intro of “Fountains of Youth.”
Another highlight is “Jellyfish,” which boasts a precisely constructed soundscape that makes me think Local Natives were jamming to Glass Animals or even Massive Attack when writing this song. The transition from these very modern sounds to the bluesy intro and tender vocals of “Coins” is another great moment of the album that highlights its diversity. I will admit that I was disappointed, however, when the song jumped 35 years of British music history, going from Rolling Stones to Coldplay in far too short of a time. Along the same lines, the no-holds-barred pop of “Mother Emanuel,” which gives off an Atlas Genius vibe at times, made me suspect that this was an intentional shot at the Billboard charts, but the fact that this track was not released as a single contradicts this.
The last third of the album takes a definite drop in quality — particularly “Psycho Lover” and “Sea of Years” — but two tracks hold their own. First, there is the refreshing folksiness of “Ellie Alice,” marked by the prominent sound of fingers sliding on guitar strings. Then there is “Everything All At Once,” which in my opinion should have been the closer. This is easily the album’s hardest track to characterize. Its pop leanings made me skeptical, but the use of piano and violin made the tune an impressive standout.
Still, I have to admit that Local Native’s songwriting on this release does not measure up to the exceptional “Wide Eyes” and a few other instances from their previous work. However, their ability to craft an album has improved, and their willingness to use guitars a bit less and explore new sonic territory deserves praise. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the album is greater than the sum of its parts, but certainly the individual parts are, for the most part, very solid. Local Natives should be commended for creating a record that gives modern indie rock a good name.
Essential Tracks: Dark Days, Jellyfish, Everything All At Once
If you like: The xx, Broken Bells