Martians Go Home
Fordham University legend has it that for a few years (or maybe it’s months, I forget) Hum took up temporary residence in Rodrigue’s Coffeehouse, an intimate one room building that once functioned as the President’s house but by the early-1990s was a thriving performance space hosting the likes of Rodan, Velocity Girl, Tsunami and Sunny Day Real Estate. I arrived on campus in 1994, and eventually took over the responsibilities of running the joint for the next four years. In that time, the veracity of the Hum rumor was never corroborated, but like the story of Allen Ginsberg scrawling an impromptu poem on the coffeehouse’s basement wall, only to later be painted over by facilities, it was nice to have something in which to believe; the feeling that I was part of something special. During my four years of undergraduate studies in the Bronx, I came to love Hum. The cathartic dissonance, infinite feedback and lush instrumentation of both 1994’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut and 1998’s Downward Is Heavenward was some of the most palpable music since My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. In fact, I recall declaring Downward Is Heavenward “perfect.” It was a sad day when I heard of the band’s demise. However, to learn of former Hum singer/guitarist Matt Talbot’s latest project Centaur (with Big Bright Lights’ Derek Niedringhaus and Sixteen Ton’s Jim Kelly rounding out the lineup), precipitated hopes and expectations of revisiting times past. Maybe that’s the problem.
In some ways, In Streams picks up where Downward Is Heavenward left off, but in many ways it falls short. Sure, it’s a seamless return to mellifluous vocals stretched over heavenly distorted guitars, yet there is something (almost inexplicable) absent. It’s as if the layered energy that subsumed each Hum song is gone; the sound isn’t as tight, and at times, it’s just plain uninteresting. Perhaps my standards are too high, and a bit revisionist. I know that this is not a Hum album, and that as an honest critic I must be objective. But, there is different criterion that we attach to bands we cherish. If I was comparing Justin Timberlake’s Justified with anything N’Sync has hitherto released, the critical paradigm would be less stringent — not because I don’t like them, but because nothing they have ever recorded can be considered epochal.
Admittedly, after a few listens, In Streams grew on me. In fact, there are some damn good moments that rival material from Hum’s repertoire! With “Strangers On 5,” the dissonance is turned down a little, giving way to a crisp sound that still manages to fill the every last cubic centimeter of the soundscape with syncopated basslines, snippets of an unintelligible conversation and even a keyboard solo. Unlike Hum songs, there is an emphasis on the lyrics, which are seemingly less equivocal: “We are strangers on 5, and I can see through these clouds . . .So let’s talk about innocence, moving slowly overground.” “Placencia” and “The Same Place” are crunching oeuvres that are sure to sate any Hum fan’s appetite. Unfortunately, these few songs are really the album’s only interesting moments, the rest is more or less uneven and uninspired.