Big Beautiful Sky
This CD consists of five rerecordings of material from Venus Hum’s first, “minor-label” record released in 2001 and seven new songs. One of which, “Alice,” premiered on the Hummingbirds EP that teased this release last year.
Venus Hum’s line includes groups like Sweet Dreams-era Eurythmics; computers and electronics surrounding pop-soul vocals, their material very much based on the structure of classic pop songs. I have been a fan of the band ever since I reviewed that self-titled debut. This is my kind of music, electronic dance outlines colored in by airy, warm vocals that add the breath of humanity. Electronics can be very comforting (for some of us, anyway) and Tony Miracle and Kip Kubin make an emotionally safe “bed” from which vocalist Annette Strean can give her theatrical performances.
So why am I having a problem getting as excited about Big Beautiful Sky as I was about Venus Hum’s previous releases? I think its because the new material here, with the exceptions of “Soul Sloshing” and especially “Alice” (“Lumberjacks” has potential too) is ordinary and overly pensive.
It also has a kind of Bjork-like vibrancy we have heard before. From Bjork. It must be admitted that she was already a point of comparison especially with Strean’s singing, as would be Madonna’s vocals circa Ray Of Light (however, Strean transcends the latter).
Though I have long thought of Venus Hum as belonging in that league, what sent them soaring in my view was that they were bringing something new to it. And here, for the first time, they sound like bandwagon jumpers.
The reworking of “Hummingbirds” that opens the album remains the success it was on the EP; I wish I could say the same for “Montana” which follows it. This was one of the two best songs on the original record but has lost some of its shine in the new version. It never seems to set Strean loose the way the first one did. Fortunately “Honey,” a little later, is just as great here as on the debut.
It is distressing to be writing this review, but perceptions do change — and both ways. “Wordless May” has risen in my esteem despite the fact that the programming, near as I can hear, is virtually unchanged from the original. I had thought this a song in which the words held up a yawn-inducing backing track, but it has no such effect now. Similarly, I can’t be sure if they lowered the throbbing drum sound in the mix of “Alice,” but it bothered me less here than on the EP.
For some reason Venus Hum always inspires me to make lists of producers and remixers I’d like to hear them work with, and this album is no exception: “Lumberjacks” is just calling out for a Shep Pettibone remix to make the percussion a little more prominent, for example. A note from Venus Hum’s marketing team suggests listening to Big Beautiful Sky on headphones; “Soul Sloshing” benefits most from this experiment. But I’d still like to see how it would “look” after a little polish and honing by, say, Dave Stewart. And I would love to hear what Martyn Phillips could do with “Sonic Boom.” This song has now been recorded by the group in three different versions (two on the first release). This is the best of the three, but it still sounds more like an extra track on a CD single than an album cut. To me, anyway, but obviously Venus Hum like it more than I do.
Not long ago I wrote, “Venus Hum is a band I could easily come to love, if I haven’t already.” Now I feel as though I have been on two very good dates with them, and on the third, they decided they had to wash their hair. I sincerely hope this album breaks them big, but between you, me and the lamppost… hear the indie album first.
MCA Records: http://www.mcarecords.com