As much as I could make an argument that music review/news website Pitchfork is one of the worst things ever to happen to music (of course, I could also make an argument for MTV holding a similar title), I have to admit that the website has brought plenty of good music into the public light. On the downside, the website has singlehandedly created the group of music fans known as the "hipster," people who seem to thrive on Pitchfork's "band of the moment" style of reporting. These folks flock to "trending" or "buzzworthy" bands, and often have little to really say about the music they listen to other than ramble on and on about what website “x” said about the group and the tunes. Pitchfork also a tendency to thrust numerous bands into popularity and notoriety virtually overnight, which, in the minds of anyone who wants to be a “rock star,” is a dream scenario . The problem with this is that numerous bands and musicians are not quite ready for the mainstream. In the past, bands could develop a bit before becoming world famous, and by that time, they usually had their faculties in order to handle the situation. The groups Pitchfork champions are instantly given infallible, god-like status by the internet's scriptwriters, and it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to live up to such lofty expectations.
Gorilla Manor, the debut record by Local Natives falls into such a category. Here's a group (made up of guitar/bassist/vocalist Taylor Rice, vocalist/keyboardist/percussionist Kelcey Ayer, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Ryan Hahn, and drummer Matt Frazier) that recorded their debut album in 2009, and promptly received glowing reviews in Pitchfork and various other online music websites. Truth be told, Gorilla Manor is a decent record, it has solid musicianship, glistening vocal harmonies that are warm and quite pleasant to listen to, and a playful, experimental vibe that lurks just beneath the disc's folky surface. Yet, it's a disc that I don't particularly think would hold up in the long run; it’s a album and is worthy of a listen certainly, but will this album be viewed as one of the seminal records of the 2000s at any point down the road? I kind of doubt it, and heaping an almost absurd amount of praise on an album that marks an auspicious debut for Local Natives but little else in the bigger scheme of things seems ill-advised and somewhat irresponsible.
To start off with, Local Natives have a sound that seems to be much in demand these days, and, in the minds of popular music critics, the group perpetuates a genre that's all the rage anymore. Following the unexpected critical and commercial success of bands like Arcade Fire, who took quirky folk and indie rock into the mainstream, there have been well-regarded records in much that same vein by the likes of Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, and Animal Collective. These bands had a sound that featured eccentric lyrics, some unusual instrumentation and rhythms, and probably would be tied more closely to folk music than what most listeners would think of as a rock and roll sound. To me, Local Natives sound comparable to Vampire Weekend in many ways: both bands seem to utilize unconventional drumming at their base, then layer on instrumental parts sometimes formed around keyboard melodies, and finally topping off the mixture with high-register vocals. Unlike Vampire Weekend’s solo vocalist, however, Gorilla Manor displays the vocal talents of a trio of singers who harmonize quite nicely on nearly every track.
Gorilla Manor has quite a nice variety of songs on it ranging from driving, bass-heavy rock tunes to chilled out, quiet and relaxed folk numbers. The disc starts off with "Wide Eyes," which right off the bat gives the listener a good idea of what to expect on the disc. It's a fairly good choice to start off the disc, as it's driven by frenetic drumming, and a fuzzy bass groove, over which are overlayed fluttering guitar riffs. The track eventually includes a spacey interlude part and perhaps could be classified as light psych-folk before exploding into a grandiose, loud finale. Follow-up track “Airplanes” initially takes the intensity down a notch, starting off with just a kick drum beat and piano chords. The vocal line on this track particularly reminds me a lot of the delivery of Vampire Weekend's singer Ezra Koenig, as it has a quirky style, repeating lines of lyrics in unusual patterns. Throughout the track, there's occasionally mandolin thrown in, particularly during a comparatively noisy chorus section.
Continuing onwards, we get "Sun Hands," the album's lead single, with the dominating element of the song being Frazier's intricate drumming rhythms. Vocal harmonies interweave above a smooth bass line and almost math-rock styled guitar licks before the track segues into a "freakout" section. With religious revival-like, almost screamed vocals, this section is pretty raucous and leads to a psych-rock interlude before the track finally quiets down again at the coda. As it seems to highlight all the major elements of the album, is indicative of the band’s basic sound palette, and contains a section that rocks pretty hard, the track seems a good choice for a radio single.
For me, the main problem with this album is that there isn’t a standout track to be found on the disc. This material is universally decent, and all of the songs are well performed from both vocal and instrumental perspectives. It just seems like the disc doesn't have a track that really hooks the listener and catches his attention. Gorilla Manor is a pleasant listen that includes some nice variety ("Cards and Quarters" is a groove-heavy lounge rock piece that sounds tailor made for playing in a smoky bar late at night, while "Shape Shifter" is much more rock-oriented, with gnarly guitar licks and heavy waves of noisy background sound), but I didn't really find any of the tracks here to be especially memorable. There's some albums I could listen to, thoroughly enjoy, then immediately want to replay them to catch my favorite moments all over again. Simply put, Gorilla Manor doesn't have any of those moments for me.
The basic formula of many of these songs remains about the same throughout the album, and after a while, the album doesn't really offer up any surprises for the listener. While some of the tracks (and particularly the album's closer "Sticky Thread," which may be my favorite track on the album) have guitar parts that I would classify as being influenced by precise math-rock licks a la Minus the Bear or projects by the Kinsella brothers, the tracks on Gorilla Manor lack that genre's penchant of turning on a dime and barreling into something completely different. As it stands, most of these tunes have a "psych section" thrown in somewhere amidst the quieter segments. I do, however, appreciate the band's tendency to throw almost imperceptible keyboard parts, or mandolin melodies into the mixes. These little additions make the tracks fun to listen to with headphones, as they're difficult to pick up on without really concentrating on the recordings.
All things considered, Gorilla Manor is a solid outing that I think most people would probably enjoy. The disc very easy to listen to, never becoming distasteful in any way, is fairly inventive in its harmonies and instrumentation, and demonstrates solid songwriting. The lyrics are quirky enough to make them interesting, and the mood and tone of the songs is generally pleasant. Having said all that, there's not stand-out material here that really piqued my interest; it's a serviceable album, but it's not one that really sticks out from the crowd in my book. It'll be interesting to see if Local Natives becomes another casualty of Pitchfork's "band of the moment" mentality, but if this record is any indication, the band definitely has the potential to be more than just another of that website's champions for a day.