I often find it difficult to distinguish one post-millennial indie rock band from another, at least in terms of writing about them. In fact, I find it comforting that many are associated with specific geographical regions. It makes it easier to stereotype them, since the melting pot aesthetic (all genres being equal and equally serviceable) and textural prerogatives (lo-fi as a statement of purpose rather than something you have to put up with) have a tendency to obscure the lack of original ideas. I don’t think I’m the first person who believed that Local Natives, who hail from the storied artistic community of Silver Lake in Los Angeles, were from Brooklyn. The band’s peppy, Afro-inflected, intricately arranged rock songs and lack of sartorial exceptionalism lent them the same air of unassuming artistic ambition that characterizes the music scene of New York’s outer boroughs. When I think of L.A. indie, I think punkier (No Age) or glammier.
Local Natives’ debut album, Gorilla Manor, was one of my favorites last year. Though anyone who attempts a cover of a Talking Heads song (“Warning Sign”) from either of their first two albums deserves attention just because of their balls, what LN shares with the Heads is not so much an overachievers’ desire to totally distinguish themselves from their influences–though they do accomplish that–but rather their determination to make music as enjoyable as it is challenging. That sounds like something any band worth its salt would take for granted, but it’s generally the reason why I can’t distinguish one post-millennial indie rock band from another, especially ones from Brooklyn.
I missed LN when they played Fuji last summer, so I was determined to see them at their first-ever Tokyo gig at Quattro Jan. 31. They seem to be touring this part of the world right now with Antlers, a bona fide Brooklyn indie band who pretty much adhere to the template I described: earnest, passionate, but nothing particularly memorable. Antlers is the type of band that takes a lot of time getting into a song and a lot of time getting out of one. In between they roar.
LN, however, doesn’t seem to have much use for the usual dynamic niceties of performance. While they can do loud-soft-loud, on stage they’re a hyperactive quintet; and the visual component of a band constantly in motion, anticipating the next rhythmic push or melodic corner-turn, is such that the aural component seems so much crisper. More angular than Arcade Fire but no less attuned to the grand gesture, LN, I would imagine, could easily fill an arena with its sound. In Quattro they practically blew the walls down. Andy Hamm’s intricate bass parts (his instrument had the words “White Hot,” or something like that, written behind the fret board) nevertheless penetrated the thick layers of over-strummed guitars, looped keyboards, and three-(four?)part harmonies. Not a dance band by any means–until everything comes together with an audience in rapt attendance.
Back to those harmonies. When I first heard the album it was the thing I liked least, mainly because of the quality of the singing. Both Taylor Rice and Kelcey Ayer have high, reedy voices, and though they’re capable of producing lung power they can’t quite provide the fullness that L.A. rock is famous for when it comes to part singing. But what they lack in substance they make up for in invention, especially during “Cards & Quarters,” one of their few languorous tunes, where the vocals flow like syrup through the thumpy beats and scary, faraway guitar, ending in a thicket of counterpoint voices. “You sound amazing,” a woman near me yelled when it was over.
The good thing about seeing a band who has only released one album so far that happens to be great is that you get to hear all your favorite songs, and though I wasn’t necessarily surprised at the eruptions of recognition that greeted almost every intro (a record company person told me with unhidden disappointment that the Japan edition of Gorilla Manor had only sold 220 copies, so I assume every single one of those buyers were there), I was quite impressed with the accumulation of emotion that attended every coda, and obviously so was the band. At one point Rice explained that this was the first show they’d played in two months, “the longest break from concerts we’ve had in the past three years.” And then later, when he introduced “Who Knows Who Cares,” he said it was one of the first songs the band had written, at a time when they made the momentous decision to make a concerted go of this music thing. In fact, it’s what the song’s about. They were obviously still on top of the high of it all. Next, Osaka and then Australia. Still time to ride that surging wave of accomplishment before the uncertainty of the potential sophomore slump. Grace is a great state to be in. Best not to think too deeply about it.