Live: Hum’s unlikely cult of distortion | Music
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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Live: Hum’s unlikely cult of distortion

Posted by on Wed, Aug 12, 2015 at 6:02 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JULIE K. SMITKA
  • Photo by Julie K. Smitka
Kings, Raleigh
Monday, August 10, 2015

Hum occupy an intriguing space in the '90s rock canon. The cerebral Illinois alt-rock band played to a packed house at Kings Monday night—surprising for an act best known to most for one 1995 radio hit, “Stars.” The crowd encompassed a variety of types of fans, the more bearded of whom excitedly opined about bands such as Quicksand and God Lives Underwater when not trying to predict the night’s setlist. An older concertgoer told me a story about walking several miles to a record store just to purchase Hum’s last record as a teenager. Several people around me said they drove in from out of state. A surprising cult band, Hum have maintained a strong and devoted fanbase for 20 years through a mix of artistic merit and booking tact. More on that in a bit.

Much like their peers in the seminal ’90s rock band Failure, Hum were major-label outliers from the start. They were pulverizing and angst-ridden enough to attract the attention of Cobain enthusiasts, but they were also textural and spacey in a way that invited comparisons to less marketable genres like shoegaze and space rock. The band’s final record, 1998’s excellent Downward Is Heavenward, exemplified this sonic experimentation—and was, of course, received with a thud by the rock establishment. The album’s poor sales would eventually get Hum dropped from RCA and lead to their 2000 breakup. That is tragic, as Downward Is Heavenward remains an essential guitar record, one that takes stale grunge clichés and reinvigorates them into new, muscular forms.

“Afternoon with The Axolotis,” a powerful track from Downward Is Heavenward and the band’s opening song Monday night, alternates between Tortoise-style guitar ambience and theatrical walls of distortion. Singer Matt Talbott’s resigned, Malkmus-like vocals hover plainspoken over the proceedings, allowing the distortion to hit much harder. This is Hum’s real brilliance: While many bands of the era wore their feelings and left no doubt about exactly how upset and alienated they were, Hum defers to cryptic lyrics and skilled Pixies-style, loud-quiet-loud dynamics that make their peers look toothless by contrast.

The band ripped through a set that spanned their discography—yes, including “Stars,” which made an appearance midway through the night. Talbott’s vocals were mixed a bit low, implying he couldn’t quite hit the notes anymore, but with Hum’s weapons-grade guitar sound and the crowd’s desire to sing along, the effect wasn’t too noticeable.

Since their breakup in 2000, Hum have only played a handful of tours and one-off dates. Their current run registers as a blip on an otherwise quiet radar. Perhaps they are the benchmark for band reunions, then: They respectfully give their fans an opportunity to see them but without indulging the festival circuit or stretching the nostalgia into some degrading multi-year affair. The reunions of tomorrow might do well to follow Hum's example.

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