Hear Hums’ latest album Opens opens with “Opens” … er, begins with the title track, a mantra-like wordless vocal performance stretched across a spectrum of tones that builds in intensity until it’s joined by a multitude of percussive elements before it abruptly ceases. Thus, “Opens” is both indicative of the entire album and a red herring at the same time, a trick, a poke, a jibe that’s suggestive to the listener and draws the attention away from perhaps a greater strength. See, there is nothing to focus on, not a single element, except for the chant, layers of stretched vowels recalling the four-track experimentalism of Phil Elv[e]rum. (And I’m not gonna check – what’s the status on that “e” these days?) But here’s the kicker – despite the absolute laser focus the vocals are given, they’re the least important element on the record. Indeed, it’s suggested as such in the promotional pitch: “Though we are engaged with social/political issues, … our album nearly abstains completely from lyrics; we hope the sounds are enough to evoke positive change in people on common ground.” OK, that sounds good. Count me in.
Hear Hums hail from Gainesville, Florida, but instead of reflecting any element of the locale’s fanaticism toward its main educational institution, the University of Florida (go Gators?), the duo of Mitch Myers and Kenzie Cooke retreat to the humid forests of the subtropical landscape I can only imagine exists beyond the urban niceties of that college town. Extracting themselves from Dodge, as it were, does Cooke and Myers a world of good, as they are inspired, again like Elv[e]rum (although far removed from Anacortes, Washington), by their natural surroundings. The woods, the forest, the jungle, that’s their domain – they can get away from it there, and be reminded somewhat that human beings haven’t paved over everything quite yet. Think how still the humid air hovers the minutes before a thunderstorm, when you breathe shorter and slightly more labored than usual, and how electric your skin feels before you’re drenched in a downpour. That’s what Myers and Cooke are going for, those moments before the sky lets loose – albeit in miniature. Like in an aquarium, on your mantle. (Although “Native Uproar” begins with what sounds suspiciously like a field recording of a cloudburst.)
The focus of the album is not on the rush of nature revealing its power to agnostic man (or the vocals, the most human aspect of Opens), but the minute details that precede and surround it. Let’s call it “tiny tribalism,” and yeah, that may sound a bit too cute, but hear me out. Hear Hums have pretty much dropped all electronic elements that cropped up on their previous album, Psyche Cycles, and instead opt here for an almost entirely acoustic setup, featuring organ, guitar, and percussion, and little else. These limitations actually enhance the duo’s performance, allowing them to tap in to a meditative wavelength in which the listener can also easily become ensnared. You may not be sitting cross-legged and trying to clear your mind of worldly entrapments, but even if you’re whizzing down the highway on your way to work, Opens works its calming, escapist charms.
So each pluck, each organ wheeze, is mic’d for maximum tactile impact, another communal device that essentially places you in the room (or around the campfire) with Hear Hums. Further engendering that air of communality is the sometimes chaotic performances, where what seems like a roomful of players bump up against one another’s contributions and everyone is given equal opportunity to join in. (This isn’t actually the case, otherwise we might have a forty-minute drum circle album, or something like that, on our hands, and no one wants that.) The effect adds to the fairly uniform tone and level of intensity throughout, as dynamic shifts are really nowhere to be found – and if you’ve read this far, you know that, on a record in which so much emphasis is placed on a deeper level of connection with your natural surroundings, this isn’t a bad thing.
It’s telling that Myers and Cooke pull this off and retain an organic melodicism amidst the rhythmic patterns. “Shrines” is built upon an eastern drone that drives the song about halfway, until chimes and patches add unforeseen levels of beauty and structure. “Am I” quickly pitter-patters its way along as if The Books focused on performing freak folk rather than constructing archival sound collages, then twangs out of control before it coalesces into a backporch dustbowl dirge. “Critters Canopy” trickily opens on faux–found sound and steel drums, then joyously morphs into what could be the theme song to a children’s safari program on television. “Wish Upon Wish Island” makes loosely tuned string instruments sound like angels singing.
The duo has not neglected the experimental headspace it so desperately needs to periodically enter, headspace similar to the transcendental wanderings of the likeminded Plankton Wat (whose split with Super Minerals got the ol’ Crate-Digging treatment not long ago). “Chit Akash” (a term that I’m not going to deeply unpack due to ignorance, but a quick web search gives me “chit akasha,” a sort of “cosmic consciousness” or “conscious power” – appropriate!) and “Womb Lulls” swirl in simple yet psychedelic sound abstractions, vibrant hallucinatory compositions in the midst of the already barely-tethered song cycle. And thus, it all works like a charm – Opens is a deeply nuanced and lovingly crafted paean to what humanity can accomplish if it’d only get past its whole, you know, human nature thing – the greed, the destruction, the neglect. Wounds will open, wounds lay bare, but they can heal, and that’s what the Hums are telling us. Let ’em apply a little of their salve.
RIYL: Mount Eerie, Lucky Dragons, Plankton Wat, early Animal Collective