(KCRW.com) Last Friday, as a precursor or all-access preview to their full orchestra-accompanied show at Disney Hall, Los Angeles' own Local Natives appeared on KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" for an interview and to play a half-hour live set with a string quartet. The band played a solid, energetic and incredibly tight set that is now available as a free download from KCRW's website.
First of all, I have to note that it feels really good to be writing such a positive live review of a popular L.A. band (I guess technically an Orange County band, but whatever--we claim them).
If you've ever had the misfortune of being stuck next to me at the bar on a whiskey night, you've probably heard way more than you want to about my general disappointment in the L.A. music scene, but I stand by every word. You'll notice that, in the opening sentence of this column, I had to state that the band played a "live" set. Usually that would seem redundant, but this is Los Angeles, baby, and very few things are what they appear to be. It's really hard to catch a decent set from a local band in this town. This is not to say that there aren't a lot of good bands; it's just to say that the good bands don't tend to make it here. The bands that tend to build heat on the L.A. scene are typically more style than substance. There are a lot of extremely popular non-musician bands, a lot of gimmick bands, a lot of dress-up bands, a lot of hired gun backing bands fronted by actors and/or hipsters who "Reeeeeealy GET music, ya know?" And I'm not joking.
I once had an actress, who fronted a pretty popular Hollywood-based band, tell me that she was qualified to front said band because "No one else FEELS The Beatles the way I FEEL The Beatles." Around here, there is no better or more personal accessory than a music career.
Anyway. Local Natives are different. They ARE what they appear to be. Local Natives are a really talented band comprised of guys who I can only assume are huge Music Department nerds. It's clear that they love what they do, they work hard at it, and they are good at it. And on this particular occasion, they played a beautiful, spot-on, even flawless in-studio set accompanied by a string quartet.
And I think the flawlessness, the refinement, is the most interesting thing about Local Natives. Without being at all incendiary or provocative, they are incredibly fun to listen to. Their music is catchy, easy to relate to, but never too forceful. It's music that doesn't burn out your ears, that you don't like for a minute and then grow sick of. It's music that you want to keep around. It's as if they write songs that are beyond their years; songs that they know will stick but that they won't grow tired of playing in a couple of years; songs that are stylistically flexible and that leave room for improvisation, should they still be doing this in twenty years. I once read a biography of Leonard Cohen that stated that he "emerged fully formed," and I think these boys have a bit of that.
Furthermore, as much as they are compared in the mainstream to groups like Arcade Fire, I feel that they have an entirely different aesthetic. They are not so loose, not nearly so epic. They deliver an extremely calculated, rehearsed, professional performance. And though they occasionally lean to powerpop, they show great restraint. They resist the temptation to lean on the loud soft dynamic; they don't typically use complex arrangements to build to crescendo. They don't play out the epic codas and re-refrains. They aren't dispassionate, but they are controlled. They are technicians. And they are honest. They aren't challenging, they aren't edgy or experimental, there's no gimmick. They are pleasant. They are good musicians playing good songs that are pleasant to listen to. And that is a very, very hard thing to pull off. It's a thin line to tread. One wrong step on the syncopated powerfolk tightrope and they could easily slip and fall into the Adult Contemporary bin, where they would languish with all that awful, white, neo-soul and grunge light, but thus far, their balance is sound.
What makes this performance all the more special is that we, the audience, are witnessing a great moment in the life of this band. We are watching them come into their own. They are returning triumphant from a world tour and receiving the coveted honor of playing Disney Hall with an orchestra. I have a feeling that these boys will remember this performance forever. And maybe some of us will too. I think that, when a performer is playing a show that holds particular significance to him/her, an undeniable gravity is assigned to that performance. And that dense energy translates to the audience.
It locks its jaw and leaves a mark, and forever, people who saw that performance will associate it with a period in their own lives. And this is particularly true for intimate performances. For instance, the presence of the quartet in particular reminds me of the heyday of MTV Unplugged. Unplugged was such a great vehicle for irreversibly endearing bands to even the most casual of fans. I'm not even going to get into the argument that it was Unplugged and not Nevermind that really solidified Nirvana as pop gods...but I could.
As I seem to do every week, I digress. Local Natives really pulled it off. They sounded great playing acoustic with a quartet. And that is further testament to their adaptability and professionalism.
A friend of mine used to always say that the reason there can't be a real Unplugged series anymore is because most bands that become popular enough to afford a string section either:
a) write (or buy) terrible songs and then mask them in sparkly production, dressing and gravy; or
b) don't really play their instruments and really don't want to be exposed for what they are.
Or, as one of my favorite teachers delicately puts it, "No one wants to look at an unpolished turd."
Long story short, good songs translate to any style, and good musicians can play them on any gear. To take John Lennon completely out of context, I might say, "I'm an artist. If you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it."
Give these boys a tuba.
For Fans Of: Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend
Standout Tracks: "Wide Eyes," "Camera Talk," "Warning Sign," (originally by The Talking Heads)