Local Natives always faced an uphill struggle. Right from their inception they’ve been labelled as critics’ darlings, a band for Pitchfork readers, a band to drop the name of at arty parties to make that cute indie girl with the fringe and the ironic polka dot dress and the butterfly tattoo on her wrist fall in love with you. Constantly compared to Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire and – just to complete the pressure – another hugely critically successful band in Vampire Weekend, Local Natives have been a band unnecessarily thrust into the spotlight for many months already. The Vampire Weekend comparison is especially baffling. Bar a tiny bit of steel drums and the occasional splash of Afrobeat rhythms there’s nothing similar to the Ivy Leaguers at all.

The band are from the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, which is in itself usually enough to get the bloggers salivating. But while initially there is promise and invention in Gorilla Manor, stick your head below the surface and there isn’t much going on. Many of the tracks are without direction, and not in a good way. They don’t wooze along in a carefree manner, they’re deliberately planned to not go anywhere. Like too much new American music, this is just far too studied and thought out. Music making should be a natural process, a suck-it-and-see trial-and-error method to see what works, but I can’t shake the feeling out of my head that somehow spreadsheets and graphs and meetings were involved in the creation of Gorilla Manor. It’s in direct contrast to America’s best new band Girls, who captured hearts with their honesty rather than their intelligence or ability to work a key change into a song.

The band are heavily melody based, with plodding rhythms often adding nothing to the soft but focussed harmonies. Instead of the Beach Boys, you could call this lot the Research Lab Boys. That’s where it feels this music has come from. The frustration is that the band are clearly talented. When they bring strings in, it really works. Camera Talk, the single that precedes Gorilla Manor, is a rollocking piece, propelled along by the strings at the forefront. There’s an energy and drive about them when they deviate from the guitar norm and it is only then that the often mooted Arcade Fire comparisons are at all worthy. Never does Gorilla Manor come anywhere near to inheriting the sheer emotion of Funeral.

Who Knows Who Cares is the closest they come to a great song, and it’s enough to show it might be worth keeping an eye on the band in the future. There’s a gorgeous, simple piano hook, before the harmonies soar and the strings come in. It’s notably quicker than anything else on the album and is genuinely fantastic, even if at times it does sound inexplicably like Matchbox Twenty. Unfortunately, it’s a rare bright spot in an album of averageness. Penultimate track Strange Things even resorts to hand claps. If you haven’t given up by then, the band sure have.

Unpredictable moments are few and far between. Airplanes starts with a sound like the band are desperately constipated. World News has a bit of electro synth action, as if someone in the band noticed the success of Little Boots and La Roux in the UK and thought ‘We should have a bit of that’. When the band run out of ideas, usually about two minutes into each song, they revert to type, wailing away together. It’ll all have the beardy muso chin-strokers crossing their legs to hide their embarrassing erections (take a few minutes to Google ‘Local Natives interview’ and you find lots of bedroom writers basically asking the band if they can be friends with them), but there’s nothing to dance to here, nothing that makes you want to sing along, to lie in bed listening with just the liner notes for company. There’s nothing to fall in love to or with. When you analyse it deeply, there’s nothing satisfying or impressive about being able to sing in tune with your mate. I can do that on Guitar Hero or Rock Band (apart from the in tune bit). What I can’t do is write a song with thoughtful lyrics, a great hook and some memorable melodies. It seems that neither can Local Natives on a regular basis.

The lyrics are trite and meaningless, the kind of platitudes you’d find in a mobile phone advert. One passage from Airplanes unbelievably goes “it sounds like we would have had a great deal to say to each other” and another goes “I love it all so much / I call / I want you back.” It’s piss poor writing, the kind of thing Kate Nash would come up after a lobotomy. And the too-high vocals really start to grate after a while.

The way the album ends sums it up perfectly. It’s a vaguely interesting track, Sticky Thread, with some new jangly stuff going on that the band haven’t tried in the previous eleven songs. It too meanders, but more prettily than most of the album. And then it just fades away. Into nothing. Poof! It’s gone. Just like the rest of the album, it leaves no lasting impression. You’ll never listen to Gorilla Manor and at the end immediately want more, and play it again from the beginning. You just won’t.

The problem with Local Natives is they’re not good enough to make their wholly winsome schtick, er, stick. Gorilla Manor isn’t a terrible album, far from it. It’s well paced, the songs are nicely structured and Who Knows Who Cares is a song any band would be proud of writing. But the music just doesn’t have enough love and care in it. It’s too sterile. There’s a hopeless lack of memorable hooks, of lyrics that prick up your ears, of anything that will mean you will return to this band and this album in 2010.

5/10

This review was written for TMM.

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