Deserted: Hum ‒ Downward Is Heavenward

Perched on shelves, buried in bins, and collecting dust on racks, some of the world’s best music is left to the fate of time. Forgotten and neglected, these artists and albums are now primed for re-evaluation thanks to a world gone digital. Any would-be musical explorer can now plug in, tune out, and turn up. Deserted is aimed at aiding those who would embrace the past rather than reject it. So open up your arms and welcome Hum.

Full disclosure, this column is hypocritical. If I may indulge in a rant: nostalgia is the death of music. Deserted, while a response to the rampage of musical nostalgia that has gripped the mainstream since the dawn of Napster, can’t help but succumb to that bit in me that still remembers the excitement of awaiting CD release day (the absence of “the leak”), hearing a neglected artists on the radio or seeing them on television, and the last gasp of respectability and fun that was MTV. I stayed up late whenever possible to watch Alternative Nation spew its contents onto my impressionable mind. I lapped up every miniscule piece of non-information Matt Pinfield fed to me during Sunday nights with 120 Minutes. I still cherish those times.

Yet I’m bothered that everyone from Steven Hyden to Tom Brokaw has taken stabs at summarizing their favored generation. As journalists (I apply the term to myself ever so loosely), we speak about what we know -- it’s a blessing and a curse. As much as I loathe the framing of the 90s (or the 40s - 80s) and the myriad VH1 programs aimed at coaxing excited reactions from my cold, stony soul, here I am about to subjugate you to the same bullshit I’d prefer to rail against. But I can’t because it would be betrayal. I would be denying myself of those thrills I experienced as a wide-eyed teen and though I do not wish to relive my youth, I do wish to be someone to slap others in the face or provide an electrical jolt to their brain to remind them of some great music that existed before the new wave of fad musicians trumpeted by fairweathers and wagon jumpers. In that sense, I’m just like Hyden or Brokaw -- and maybe worse than them because I should relish these opportunities to wax poetic with like-minded readers and scholars who can impart wisdom and an adequate frame to view these long-gone times. So I yield to a story of nostalgia (and first person espousal on my beaten soapbox because righteousness does not pay the bills) and pay tribute.

For reasons I can’t recall, I was at the home of a friend in my small Midwestern hometown (the epilogue to any good 90s music story) enjoying my first exposure to South Park thanks to the marvels of satellite television. But what struck me was a commercial for Downward Is Heavenward, Hum’s follow-up to what had quietly become my favorite record as the 90s wound down, You’d Prefer an Astronaut. I became antsy. The antics of dirty third graders and a party full of cute girls no longer mattered. I counted down the minutes until my date grew tired, so I took her home and hit Wal-Mart as the clock lurched past midnight. This was my only shot in my town at this hour to find Downward Is Heavenward. Every once in awhile, one could dig up buried treasure courtesy of the Walton empire but alas, it wasn’t until the next day and a trip to a northern outlet mall that Hum’s newest album was mine.

Hum, as they stand now, have been reduced to YouTube clips and ad fodder for an automobile manufacturer; all things well and good. At the time of Downward Is Heavenward, Hum had endured terrible comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins because of shared Illinois roots. Hum was -- and is -- something different, something more. The brand of atmosphere that pervaded their production was only available on small labels churning out smaller quantities of good music. The construct of their dual guitar assault had no equivalents during the time, though critics relied upon the obvious: Sonic Youth.

Only now are we aware of Hum’s forward sound. Downward Is Heavenward, as with its impressive predecessor, is still fresh -- something rarely true about any 90s release no matter the genre. Downward may seem a tangible stab at cracking the mainstream consciousness, but compared to the dumbing down of alterna-rock during the end of the 90s, nothing about Hum’s last album screams radio hit. Rather, the band took their expansive signature and applied to a variety of recognizable sounds. It’s rare any band adopts its own attitude toward its influences rather than playing a copy cat. It’s why it’s still so hard to believe Hum, as a recording entity, is gone.

Justin Spicer is a freelance journalist whose work can be viewed at his website. He also pens Agitated Atmosphere for the KEXP Blog. You may follow him on Twitter.

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