“Hummingbird” reaches the stratosphere

Hype and expectations can serve to elevate a band to new heights and popularity, or it can smother their creativity and sometimes mortally hinder their momentum. After one such hyped group releases a successful first album and must follow with a second, it comes with the inevitable, but ever important question: do they reinvent themselves and risk alienating their early supporters for artistic integrity? Or do they just ride the wave and put out an album identical to their first?

Silver Lake, Los Angeles’ Local Natives went with the former on “Hummingbird.” Their sophomore album found the group blazing a new trail, underpinning their signature elements in a way that is tasteful and fresh, blending old and new into something different altogether. The band sounds tighter and more unified after the departure of former bassist, Andy Hamm, whose on-record bass duties have been handed over to co-lead singer and keyboardist Kelcey Ayer. The remaining members take the band in a new direction, one accessible to newcomers as well as old fans.

Songs like opener “You & I” and first single “Breakers” find the band’s usual driving percussion and rhythm-based musicality toned down in favor of atmospherics and slow-building dynamics, to beautiful effect, showcasing the young group’s versatility. Guitars and piano blend together to create walls of sound through which the group’s signature group vocals shine.

Piano and synthesizers, used mostly as texture on Local Natives’ debut “Gorilla Manor,” are brought to the forefront on “Black Spot,” and outnumber guitars on slow-burner “Three Months,” a first for the band. It expands Ayer’s typically understated musical role in the band, and he pulls it off fantastically.

“Black Balloons” is Local Natives as their fans discovered them, powering forward with sudden and powerful dynamics, guitarist and other lead vocalist Taylor Rice’s clear, enunciated vocals, and Matt Frazier’s unmistakable and indispensable drumming. Not to mention Ryan Hahn’s always deft guitar work and backing vocals.

The album peaks with “Mt. Washington,” crystallizing the group’s musical growth and incorporating all of Local Natives’ musical and lyrical prowess into one song. Finishing off, “Bowery” is an instant Local Natives classic, with Rice and Ayer co-fronting for the first time, switching off verses seamlessly, showcasing some of the tightest harmonization of the band’s career, building tension and ending the album with cathartic release.

The only sub-par song in the bunch is “Colombia,” which, while lovely and enjoyable to listen to, hovers a little too close between sweet and overly sentimental. But unlike other Local Natives tracks of the same leaning, it dips into sappy territory, though admittedly not unbearably so.

All things considered, “Hummingbird” is a phenomenal album, artistically relevant and always striving for more. Most importantly, it deftly evades the famous sophomore slump, reinventing an established band in a way that not only makes it accessible to new audiences, but pleases their devoted followers as well. Local Natives have managed to find that rare and perfect balance that few bands achieve, and the fruits of their labor are unmistakable.