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Sick Contemplations: Hum’s Downward is Heavenward

 

HUm 2Written by Brian Furman, June 6, 2016, at 6:06 p.m.


Music is an extremely personal and experiential thing. When I talk to people and their favorite songs and bands they often look off into the clouds remembering how their first girlfriends breath smelled, the poster on the wall at their high school prom, or the venue of their most memorable concert.

I have had some provide me detailed accounts of the song that was playing when their parents passed in the hospital waiting room, or sweating out the pregnancy test in their boyfriend’s bathroom.

All that to say that, good or bad, music often augments those times and makes them memorable. One of those fairly lucid, but significant, memories I have is with the album Downward is Heavenward by the band Hum.

Hum’s Downward is Heavenward

HumIn 1995, Hum, an inconspicuous quartet from the Mid-West town of Champaign, IL, struck gold in the then “alternative” genre pushed into the black hole void left by Nirvana.

Their single “Stars” from You’d Prefer an Astronaut tallies a running theme in their lyrics of disaffected youth, unrequited love, and a science and space motif. You’d Prefer and Astronaut sold 250,000 copies landing them in the running for many new artist awards, etc., etc.

I immediately loved them. They offered a beautiful take on the drop D sound, guitarist, Tim Lash at his finest with Matt Talbot’s Ben Stein, muted but lovely vocals, and an enriching melody that brought you up to the clouds.

Fast forward to 1997, I was living in a house with some fellow delinquents, on a steady diet of Froot Loops, whiskey, and weed. I worked as a mechanic at a local bowling alley, I slept on a garbage-picked couch in the corner of a large open room with 5 other guys, 2 girls, and a dog who shit in the basement. I had You’d Prefer an Astronaut on cassette tape, in which I had to tape the ribbons together to get it to play.

Hum released Downward is Heavenward in 1997 to little fanfare, of course unless you were one of the few that remembered them. I had just broken up with my girlfriend at the time and was floating through space with any girl that knew my name. One of those girls during that time bought me the CD of Downward is Heavenward along with a player to play it on. I only remember her for buying me that record. A hidden gem from a hidden band that should have been huge and was way ahead of its time.

Melodic, heavy, scientific, beautiful, and dark, it runs the gamut of emotions never sticking with one long
enough to be dramatic. The themes of space and love, call to dimensions of the unknown driven by lyrics odd enough to make sense in those dimensions. Each song is a different offering cut from the same narrative.

Album opener “Isle of the Cheetah” paints a seven-minute opus, landscape of heavy, breezy guitars, with driving bass calling on jungle forests and arctic tundra, complete with piano filler. The overarching breadth of how the musicians and their instruments fit together peak on the verge of coming apart.

First single “Comin Home” takes those landscapes and compacts them into a punchier three-minute anthem needing maximum volume and windows down. “Green to Me” is a sludgy, poppy ode to non-primary colors.

And so on, “Dreamboat,” “The Inuit Promise,” and “The Scientists” all make generous and cutting noise, but with a graceful nature, rounding out one of the few records I can listen to from beginning to end without stopping.

With all that being said, my personal favorite, and song that will go on every one of my mixed tapes is “Ms. Lazarus.” The head-bopping party of a song is one of those that speaks to my subconscious. There is a lyric in the song “The way your headstone shines, I only wish that it was mine.” And I can clearly remember my idealized state, lying in that room full of impaired people, on my garbage-stained couch, the ceiling dark with nicotine stains and resin balls, the house with a tinge of an ammonia smell, the front door open and welcoming anyone wanting to spend an evening, with my headphones on. I was hearing that small portion of that small song, and immediately thinking of my deceased mother who, at 29, passed from cancer and within that compact amount of time, and within those words, I was able to hold her hand. That is one of my many experiential moments with music, especially Downward is Heavenward.

Hum broke up in 2000, but has had an on-again off-again reunion of sorts happening for the past 15 years. I hope to see them again real soon. I urge you to go and find that record, put on some headphones and dig in, or….. you can borrow my CD, I still have it…

 

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