California. The home of sunshine, surf and five piece indie rockers Local Natives. Once described by respected stateside music mag Pitchfork as ‘Afropop-influenced guitars with hyperactive drumming and hooky three-part harmonies’ – the band have been somewhat quiet for a few years now. With their first two albums generating both favourable reviews and significant worldwide sales it would have been easy to stick with a tried and tested formula. Instead, as guitarist Ryan Hann explains, when it came to writing their third album the band focused on ‘forgetting about what they had done previously’ and ‘discovering how to make songs in different ways’. The result is Sunlit Youth, an understated yet playful album that finds a perfect balance between imagination and solid ground.
Overall the direction of travel is predictable enough as Local Natives meander through a range of interesting and subtle musical variations, none of which overstay their welcome. Sunlit Youth isn’t trying too hard to impress. The quirky little riffs and inventive rhythms only hang around long enough to keep you engaged before stepping aside to let another idea take centre stage. There’s no showing off. No look at me aren’t I clever self-indulgence. Just a sense of confidence, conviction and maturity that give the songs individuality, the album character.
The opening tracks (Villainy and Past Lives) set the tone for what follows as they fluctuate between synth patterns, ghostly guitar work, periods of downtime and vocal rich chorus. Amalgamations of bite sized imagination held together by consistent beat, the music seems to exist an inch behind reality. At times barely engaging your senses, yet simultaneously drawing you towards a different mindset. Don’t get me wrong, Sunlit Youth isn’t some kind of hippy whale song meditation tape. There is though something unexpectedly spiritual going on.
The addition of a female vocal adds a different texture to ‘Dark Days’ that really suits the tone of the music, before ‘Fountain Of Youth’ brings a slightly harsher feel to proceedings. As with everything about the album it’s a low key shift in emphasis. Nothing flash, just well crafted and lovingly put together.
This unobtrusive approach is Sunlit Youth’s hallmark. Strongly evident in all the songs but perhaps best demonstrated in two later tracks. ‘Jellyfish’ builds slowly from a hypnotic backdrop of mechanical texture overlaid with childlike chimes and soulful vocals. An enchanting soundscape that ebbs and flows through your subconscious before drifting away to nothing. ‘Ellie Alice’ is probably the best track on the album. The simple strumming of an acoustic guitar caresses the air. Heartfelt vocals evoke indistinct memories of adolescent encounters. A typically upscaled chorus adds weight to the emotive quality of uncomplicated verse. It’s a beautifully constructed song that takes you somewhere else. Where I don’t know, but I like it.
This is what music should do. Make you think. Make you feel. Make you experience life in a different way.
Local Natives third studio release isn’t going blow your socks off or fill your soul with revolutionary zeal. It’s not that kind of album and Local Natives aren’t that kind of band. They’re contemplative musicians who invite you to reflect on, not rage against, the world we live in. Healers not radical preachers. Purveyors of compassion not hatred.
Sunlit Youth is like a late evening stroll along a West Coast beach. The tide washing against the shore. The last embers of a setting sun dipping slowly beneath the horizon. The perfect environment to conclude the world ain’t that bad after all.