When a petulant, exasperated tween exclaimed, “I have no idea where I am!”—twice—during the early going of 2005’s smudged, sprawling, sample-plastered Tooth+ Claw, we sympathized. At the time, Our Brother the Native sounded a whole lot like young Animal Collective fans piecing together abstract beardo collages via e-mail, because that’s exactly what was happening. Ergo, then, the found-sound birdsong onslaughts; the euphoric, shrieking rampages; the incessant tape-manipulated perversions; the cheeky, racially awkward inclusion of an African-American preacher’s fire-‘n’-brimstone sermon. Swapping files between Michigan and California, this Wire-worthy, Never-Never-Land Hanson cobbled together a freak-folk mystery blissfully impervious to patience, logic, and sobriety.
Older doesn’t necessarily equate to wiser. That vocalists/multi-instrumentalists John Michael Foss, Joshua Bertram, and Chaz Knapp would eventually log in-person studio time was inevitable; that they’d bring aboard a violinist and mistake pretentious, molasses-thick inertia for artistic sophistication wasn’t. Make Amends, for We Are Merely Vessels eschews its predecessor’s spontaneity entirely, tying oppressive soft-loud-soft post-rock dynamics and drab shoegazery up together with an oversized, olive-green, synth-drone bow. Previously, the Natives’ declarations were upfront but giddily unintelligible; huskier of voice today, they’re all but lost in the dank gray swirl generated here. No surprises, no thrills: just somber piano keys plinking, ghostly voices floating, lonely xylophones pinging, distorted CB radios squawking, drums pounding, and pealing guitars trudging forth until, finally, it’s Intense Rock Crescendo Payoff Time. Even the sunnier meditations—the cascading “We Are the Living” or the churning, wispy “Younger”—refuse to engage or shift beyond a stubborn, comatose idle. Intriguing, though, is “Trees Part 1”: Amorphous, roiling gloom unexpectedly gives way to a Wolf Eyes pique fit and endorphic Pearly Gate fanfare that’s gossamer, sustained, heartbreaking. Then it’s over, and Our Brother the Native lose us—and themselves—again.