Animal Joy
Part Two: Foals and Hummingbirds

Welcome to the second of our two-part animal-related reviews collection, and the second opportunity I have resisted to make a Nine Inch Nails reference in the title. You’re welcome.

So you all know about my aversion to hype, and my reluctance to plunk down good money for the work of new, untested bands. Yes, I know this puts me at odds with every music critic ever. The thrill of the new, all by itself, doesn’t hold a lot of weight with me. The venerable Todd Rundgren has a new album coming out in April, his 24th, and I’m more excited about that than I am about hearing whatever new debut EP Pitchfork is talking about this week.

Yes, I understand that I’m old, and that this is entirely my problem. Which is why I resolved to fix it, to the extent that I can. Over the past several years, I’ve tried to hear as many new bands as I can afford, and listen for the potential, not necessarily the actual. A good debut should point to the future, and if all you have is one album in you, I’m still much less interested, no matter how exciting that one album may be. But I’m trying to separate my feelings about the music from my negative reaction to early hype.

Sometimes, it works out. In 2008, I picked up a fairly well-attended debut record called Antidotes by an Oxford band called Foals. This was during the Franz Ferdinand/Arctic Monkeys craze, when guitar-led dance bands were a big thing, and I nearly skipped Foals, since early notices lumped them into the same category. But those notices were wrong. Foals’ music is guitar-led, and it is danceable, but the songs on Antidotes were considerably more complex and intriguingly arranged than anything else coming out of that particular British scene.

In fact, in my review of Antidotes, I likened them to Isaac Brock fronting Minus the Bear, which is still a decent enough description. Of course, they shoved all that aside for their marvelous second album, Total Life Forever. A much more atmospheric and beautiful creation, TLF continued the band’s complicated arrangements, but applied them to dreamier songs, thoroughly opening up the sound. Despite the fact that I never got around to writing a full review of it, Total Life Forever is a remarkable second record, one that eschews hits and easy gratification for a more immersive artistic experience.

So yeah, that worked out pretty well. But Foals’ third album, Holy Fire, has left me perplexed and uncertain. It’s not a bad record by any means, but it feels like the kind of thing a band makes after their label tells them to hit a certain sales floor, or not bother coming in Monday morning.

That label is Warner Bros., the first major to take a chance on Foals, and it sounds like Yannis Philippakis and company repaid them by trying to write some hit songs. After a slow-building “Prelude,” the band hits a meaty groove on “Inhaler,” and it’s immediately more obvious than anything they’ve done. The Foals arrangements are still in effect, but the song is a real crowd pleaser, particularly when the unexpected (and frankly awesome) guitar hook comes in at 1:49. The big, blocky chords here signal a true departure for this band.

That’s not the big hit in waiting, though. “My Number” is ridiculously catchy, like something out of the Phoenix playbook, and it’s clearly designed to get the club on its feet. This is Foals’ idea of a radio song, based around an irresistible, body-shaking riff and an endlessly repetitive vocal line. “You don’t have my number, we don’t need each other now…” To extend my Isaac Brock reference from earlier, this is the band’s “Dashboard.”

And it’s very good, don’t get me wrong. But it just doesn’t offer me the same puzzle-pieces-falling-into-place feeling of the first two Foals albums. “Everytime” is similar, a percussive groove leading up to a big chorus, and you can almost see Philippakis motioning for the crowd to put their hands in the air before that last rousing refrain. The whole album retains this arena-sized feeling, and it’s an interesting suit for Foals to try on. But it doesn’t fit naturally, and Holy Fire feels a little awkward because of it.

Thankfully, the songs get more interesting in the second half. “Late Night” is a smoky driving tune with ringing electric pianos and acres of atmosphere. “Out of the Woods” gets to a U2 place, while “Milk and Black Spiders” has some Cure-esque touches. “Providence” is a pounding rocker, but an oblique one – the shifting time signatures and wildly placed guitar stings make this one a winner. And closer “Moon” is as darkly dreamlike as anything on Total Life Forever.

I can’t rightly say I’m disappointed in Holy Fire, but I can’t say it extends the band’s winning streak, either. Foals are simply not meant to be a popular band, and even though they pull off the hit single formula well, it’s the more fascinating material in the record’s back half that will make my personal playlist. I hope “My Number” is a smash, and I also hope the band has the integrity to take that newfound fame and money and make a fourth album so completely art-driven, so completely them, that it just floors me.

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Speaking of bands I tried on a whim, there’s Local Natives.

Three years ago, I picked up this Los Angeles group’s debut, Gorilla Manor, on the strength of a few reviews comparing them to Fleet Foxes. Well, they don’t sound a lot like Fleet Foxes, but what they did bring to the table was pretty great in its own right. Soaring harmonies, folksy acoustic guitars, inventive drumming, and a real sense of movement – the best part about Gorilla Manor was its kinetic nature. The moving parts of the songs never stopped spinning, and nothing sat still. It’s what separated them from the likes of Grizzly Bear.

How distressing, then, to see that the group enlisted Aaron Dessner of the National to produce the follow-up record, Hummingbird. Dessner did what he always does – he slowed everything down, smoothed everything out, and made it all more boring. The result is an album that is merely fine, instead of excellent. And this band deserved an excellent second record. In a way, they tried to make their Total Life Forever here, but came up short – the songs just aren’t up to the standard of the debut, and instead of dreaming, they sound like they’re sleepwalking.

I’m not sure how much of this to lay at Dessner’s feet, but the parts of Hummingbird I don’t like certainly sound like him. Opener “You and I” sports a soaring chorus, and Taylor Rice can still belt one of those out, but the music around it is gauzy and static. Even the bridge section, which should be delirious and dramatic, just sounds submerged. Single “Heavy Feet” drowns a sharp drumbeat beneath plainly plucked chords and droning sounds – this is saved from sounding exactly like the National only by its nicely melodic chorus and Rice’s high voice.

It’s not all bad news. Once you get used to the idea that Local Natives are not even trying to outdo Gorilla Manor, this album is quite nice. “Ceilings” has a skybound repetition to it, and Rice sends his voice into the air with effortless charm. “Black Spot” builds slowly, refusing to actually go anywhere for a long time, and then leaving earth with a minute to go. “Three Months” is actually quite pretty, making good use of that soaring falsetto. As the album wafts along, the songs get more interesting – “Wooly Mammoth” actually sounds like it could fit on the debut, and “Colombia” is lovely, if (like the rest of this effort) a little sedate.

In the final analysis, I like Hummingbird, but I wish I loved it. Local Natives filled a particular niche with their debut, and they’ve abandoned it here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I prefer the shifting folk they used to play to the quieter, simpler stuff on this album. It’s a good piece of work, pretty and aching in all the right ways, but it doesn’t stay with me the way Gorilla Manor did. I’m still interested in following Local Natives, but I’m not excited about it the way I once was.

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And that’ll do, pig. Next week, we get weird with Atoms for Peace and Everything Everything. We’ve also got new stuff from Steven Wilson, Cloud Cult, Trent Reznor’s How to Destroy Angels, They Might Be Giants and David Bowie coming up. Pretty good year so far.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.