There’s an innate tenderness with which Local Natives tend to paint the environs of the greater Los Angeles area into the background of their songs, offering little markers with which one can trace the story to the band’s beginnings.
Formed initially by Kelcey Ayer, Ryan Hahn, and Taylor Rice, classmates at Tesoro High School in Orange County (Gorilla Manor, the band’s debut album, was named after the house shared by the trio), the group eventually moved to Los Angeles, where bassist Andy Hamm (later replaced by Nik Ewing) and drummer Matt Frazier were added to the lineup. Now technically based in Silver Lake, a hot-bed for Los Angeles indie-rock, the band has continued to use the constantly shifting and diverse cityscape as a backdrop for their music. From “Villainy” (a synth-powered anthem and the best electronica-ode to the city since M83’s “Midnight City”) off Sunlit Youth; to the nostalgia-driven illustrations of L.A. that unravel on Violet Street (both the Mulholland Drive-esque music video for “When Am I Gonna Lose You,” and the grandiose allusion to Elysian Park in “Garden of Elysian,” to name two); there is a hallowed sentiment that Local Natives affords to the city they’ve come to call home.
And Sour Lemon, their first EP post-pandemic and quarantine, opens with nothing less than a dig on the Los Angeles River, delivered via a sublime duet between Rice and the spectacular Sharon Van Etten. “And the LA River makes you laugh / You say, why’s a gutter got a name like that?” Rice murmurs softly to Etten (who herself has only begun to recently call L.A. home).
And that small disconnect — the challenge of imbuing the magic-love one can have for home, and all its imperfections, to someone who has never lived there — mirrors beautifully all the grandly-whispered romances and soft lies that Etten and Rice are holding onto. Etten isn’t wrong in her quivering murmurs either, and that sense that we’ve had the rose-colored glasses on for far too long starts to seep through to Rice. It’s the necessary pointing-out of the dirt in your fries — or the fact that, sometimes, when life gives you lemons, they’re sour.
“A cross above the freeway / Holy neon light / Everybody crawling for their lives,” when the duo finally come together, their harmony pierces deep, reflecting a world where people are struggling to stumble through a new normal — while fighting to not remain complacent to it.
Much like the songs on their previous albums, Local Natives tend to write in retrospect and that affords a certain prescient nature to their songs; and Sour Lemon is no different. “Statues In The Garden” and “Lost” are both profoundly weighed down by this sense of impending doom; delivered via some of the band’s most polished and envigorating crescendos to date. The protagonist on “Statues” finds himself trapped between the walls of a home (and perhaps world) that has grown fundamentally hostile. And it’s more than just a claustrophobic play on quarantine — there is a very potent, existential despair that permeates from the songs tumbling cascading melody; a warning of sorts, of how quickly we can find ourselves trapped, admiring only the things we cannot change.
“Lost,” a soft ballad that wraps itself around the reeling of a break-up, searches for meaning amidst Rice and Ayer’s exhausted croons; its loose narrative of returning home and being “entombed at your mother’s house” gives voice to the experiences of many people being forced to return because of the pandemic.
“You got your sleeping pills inside a glasses casе / You can’t remember the last time you had a say,” Ayer croons, putting a fine point on the burden helplessness can place on your mental and emotional well-being.
Yet it’s always in the wake of these profound moments of helplessness, of feeling the all too colossal weight of the world on our shoulders, that something equally wonderful — and perhaps more critical to our survival –happens: we fall in love. Somewhere between the softly spun memory that Rice weaves on “Future Lovers,” and the glowing warmth that dissipates from its swelling adoration, there is a reminder of the moments that instill the will to endure. That even in the face of sour lemons, we can pull through together.
“We’re always working on new music, but songs tend to come at their own pace. There’s something freeing about writing without the goal of an album in mind,” the band said of the EP. “It feels like waking up for class only to realize that it’s Saturday and you can sleep in as long as you want. The songs on Sour Lemon each have their own long histories but they all finally decided to arrive at the same time. Rather than waiting, we decided to share them as soon as we could.”