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Reviews: Songs of Farewell and Departure: A Tribute to Hum

Hum

Champaign, Illinois’s Hum has reigned as one of my favorite bands for more than half my lifetime, but when I listen to their records, it’s easy to understand such devotion. Heavy but not plodding, spacey but always grounded, intelligent but still approachable, Hum’s trio of Electra 2000, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and Downward Is Heavenward made the world of ’90s alternative rock a considerably more interesting place. While they’ve been essentially inactive since 1999, you can count on a reunion show every few years to satiate their legion of die-hard fans.

The only surprise about the release of Songs of Farewell and Departure: A Tribute to Hum is that it took this long to happen, given the number of Orange amplifiers the group helped sell. Pop Up Records issued The Nurse Who Loved Me: A Tribute to Failure back in 2008, and the cross-over in fan bases and influence is significant. Perhaps the lack of a big name like Paramore, who covered “Stuck on You” for the Failure tribute, delayed the release of its Hum-honoring counterpart, but Songs of Farewell and Departure did net a few groups (Junius, Constants, Actors & Actresses) that I’ve long suspected of pulling influence from Hum and a completely unexpected guest appearance from Jawbox / Burning Airlines frontman J. Robbins.

The big name that presumably escaped Pop Up’s grasp is the Deftones. Vocalist Chino Moreno has expressed his fondness for You’d Prefer an Astronaut and it’s easy to hear echoes of Hum’s heavy-yet-spacious guitar tones in countless Deftones songs. (I remember wondering if White Pony bonus track “The Boy’s Republic” was an overt nod to Hum b-side “Boy with Stick.”) The Deftones may be absent from Songs of Farewell and Departure, but their presence is still felt in the metallic approach taken by some of the groups. In a recent run-through of eighteen covers of the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” which included one from the Deftones, New Artillery collaborator/BFF Jon Mount said, “The Deftones are a litmus test for people who liked Hum for all of the wrong reasons.” While I disagreed with the sentiment to a certain extent, there’s a nugget of truth there. Hum’s endearingly nerdy tendencies—Matt Talbott’s scientifically inspired lyrics and thin singing voice (that cracked awkwardly throughout Electra 2000)—are not the source of their prevailing influence. Instead, those heavy-yet-spacious guitar tones are often picked up by groups already heavier and/or more aggressive than Hum in the first place, like the Deftones.

Songs of Farewell and Departure: A Tribute to Hum

To help me sift through the sixteen covers on Songs of Farewell and Departure, I’ve recruited a peer from the Hum Mailing List days, Dusty Altena, who you may know from his blog, Tumblr, or Twitter.

SS: How many of these bands had you heard prior to this compilation?

DA: The only band I’ve heard of is Junius and J. Robbins (full disclosure: I am apparently not familiar enough with Jawbox to know Robbins by name). I love Failure too, but I had no idea who Kellii Scott was [the drummer on Fantastic Planet]. Sorry Kellii!

Is there a band you wish had made an appearance?

SS: It honestly would have been nice to hear the Deftones take on one of these songs. I suspect that Jesu's Justin Broadrick doesn't pull much influence from Hum records, but the thought of hearing a slow-motion rendition of "Isle of the Cheetah" from him is exciting. In a general sense, I wouldn't have minded hearing a post-rock band like Caspian take on one of these songs. The Life and Times could have done a good version of a song as well—they’d appeared on the Jawbox tribute record, so they’re a reasonable possibility. Bob Nanna of Braid / Hey Mercedes did a string of covers for his blog, so unless he hates Hum, I’m betting you could convince him to essay “Dreamboat.”

DA: I am an unapologetic Deftones fan, so I love your Deftones suggestion. I’d also love to hear some contemporaries like Jeremy Enigk, or maybe even Man…or Astroman. A Jesu post-rock cover is a great idea as well. I can’t think of any folk or semi-folk singers who’ve professed a fondness for Hum, but can you imagine a Jose Gonzalez-like cover? I would love to hear that.

SS: Let's get down to the bands that did appear on Songs of Farewell and Departure.

1. Arctic Sleep's “The Scientists”

SS: This is an entirely competent, if not hugely inspired beginning to the compilation. It's a very, very faithful take on the original, barring a few minor embellishments: heavier bridge, bigger drum sound, acoustic outro. It would have been great if they did something different with the song, though.

DA: I think competent is a perfect description for this track, ‘The Scientists’ is my favorite song on Downward Is Heavenward; but do I really want to listen to that same song with slightly different vocals? Not really. I’ll give you competent, maybe even good; but not inspired. I will admit that I dug the heavy drums and even the acoustic outro. But I was hoping for a much more original take.

2. (Damn) This Desert Air's "The Pod"

DA: I was really into the beginning of this one; it reminded me of Short Bus-era Filter. But by the time the chorus starts, it’s back to the same trap that most tribute albums fall into: faithful, faithful covers. At this point I just want to listen to the original, because it’s the same, and also better. The outro brings back that Short Bus palm-muting, and I have to admit I would love to hear the whole song reimagined on those terms.

SS: This one reminded me of a Failure / Quicksand hybrid. There’s potential here for a much more aggressive and ominous rendition if they’d ran with that palm-muting, but it follows the plot too closely.

3. Solar Powered Sun Destroyer's "Stars"

SS: If you had told me in 1997 that I'd one day hear J. Robbins sing on a cover version of "Stars," my head would have exploded. It's not that Jawbox and Hum were mutually exclusive elements in my record collection—Shiner is the explicit midway point between the two groups—but it's not a crossover I ever expected. Beyond Robbins' vocal take (which I like), Solar Powered Sun Destroyer's version adds depth but no major wrinkles.

DA: This is obviously intended to be the highlight of the album for most listeners. “Stars” remains that one Hum song that everyone remembers (even Beavis & Butthead). I still remember the night I was laying in bed and first heard this on the radio. It honestly changed music for me. I really like the post-rock intro on this version, but I don’t love the sharp enunciation, and I am not sure how I feel about the reimagined harmonies (seriously, I can barely recognize J. Robbins). This version is pretty damn close to the original, but you can hardly blame them—this song is crazy fun to play.

4. Bearhead's "Ms. Lazarus"

DA: We finally get to the first radical departure from the original. “Ms. Lazarus” was never one of my favorite Hum songs, but it had its place. This, I don’t even know what this is. I applaud the effort to make it different, but I cannot stand this alternative emo bullshit—these are basically 2006 Panic! at the Disco vocals—and I don’t want them anywhere near my Hum memories.

SS: It took me a second to figure out which song they were covering. The vocals are a non-starter for me (especially the “Shines I only wish that it was mine!” emo-thusiasm), but there are a few good rearrangements of the original guitar parts.

5. Anakin's "I'd Like Your Hair Long"

SS: Here are the nerdy vocals! Between the band's name and the vocalist not sounding like a dude chugging Muscle Milk, Anakin is in my good graces. It's not a drastically different version, but slowing down the song's main riff and adding cooed background vocals in the chorus are good calls.

DA: I like the slowdown, but the Ben Gibbard vocals annoy me. The further I trudge through this tribute, the more I am realizing how perfect Matt Talbott was as Hum’s frontman. Still, despite the Gibbardish singing, this is one of the more listenable songs so far. I will agree with you that the background cooing was a nice touch.

6. Junius's "Firehead" [YouTube]

DA: Since Junius is the only band featured on this tribute who I am really familiar with and "Firehead" is one of my all-time favorite Hum songs; I was more excited to hear this track than anything else on the album. It passes the originality litmus test (one of maybe four other songs on this record)…but is it actually good? I would argue yes. It sounds almost nothing like the original—Hum’s intense subtlety is harder to grab than you would think—but it captures enough of the original while adding just enough unfamiliarity to make it interesting. It is definitely my favorite on the album so far.

SS: Co-sign on the success of Junius’s version. The big guitar/synth sound on the bridges is vastly different from the tone of the original, but fits the material perfectly. Even the vocal delivery, something that bothered me on The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist, fits well.

7. Constants' "If You Are to Bloom"

SS: This is a largely predictable applicable of Constants' space-metal aesthetic to "If You Are to Bloom." I wish they'd done an extended jam on it or something.

DA: Way too faithful for me. Once again, I immediately want to open iTunes to listen to the original. This is the exact same song with slightly different (and worse) vocals—the very same reason I generally avoid outtakes and demos. I feel like this song adds nothing unless you are a die-hard Constants fan whose dying wish is to hear them play a Hum song. My only praise is that the production reminds me of Keith Cleversley (YPAA’s producer), and I always wanted to hear what Downward Is Heavenward would sound like if it was produced by him.

SS: Wasn’t there a rumored first take on Downward helmed by Cleversley? I remember hearing that rumor at some point.

DA: I don’t remember ever hearing that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Hearing a Cleversley-produced take on Downward will always be one of my Cancer Wishes.

SS: Have you seen Cleversley's site? Apparently he gave up producing a few years ago to get into shamanism.

DA: Ha! I hadn’t heard that, but that is amazing. I guess there isn’t much less to prove after perfectly producing one of the greatest records ever.

8. City of Ships' "I Hate It Too"

DA: Another faithful cover. At this point I would kill to hear Cat Power’s take on one of these tracks. Is the problem that it’s impossible to get at the essence of Hum without sounding like…Hum? The vocals are good, and so are the guitars; but, this honestly just sounds like an unreleased demo. It’s one of the better tracks so far, but that’s just because it sounds the closest to the original. So, what’s the point?

SS: This is absolute par. How many bands do you think took Hum’s gear list as a starting point for their musical careers and saved up for Orange amps? Do you think sounding exactly like Hum on a tonal level is the end goal for these bands?

DA: Judging by all of the @replies I get whenever I mention I own both pressings of You’d Prefer An Astronaut on vinyl, I would imagine that number is huge—I can’t think of any other band that has such a ridiculous cult following. I certainly remember buying MXR Phasers and salivating over Orange amps back in the day. I think a big part of playing Hum songs is trying to get that heavy-as-hell space sound that the band perfected.

9. Actors & Actresses' "Aphids"

SS: I can't tell of Actors & Actresses' version of "Aphids" is that much better than the covers which preceded it, or if picking a song I haven't heard eight million times is an enormous help. It's an interesting instrumental mix with softly delivered vocals that amplify, rather than disregard, the original vocal melody. Worth going back to a few times.

DA: "Aphids" has always been one of my least favorite Hum songs, but oddly, this is one of my favorite covers on the album. It feels like Actors & Actresses are taking a Hum song and making it their own rather than the other way around, and I truly appreciate that. I feel like these guys have come the closest to reaching that thin (and coveted) coverer/coveree relationship thus far.

10. Digicide's "Comin' Home"

DA: And we’re back to pseudo-Hum songs. In fairness, I don’t know how you’d cover this song and maintain the Hum elements while making it your own; but come on—this is basically the exact same backing track with slightly different (more emo) vocals. I honestly think (nu-metal band) Dope could record a better cover of this song. 10 times out of 10 I would rather listen to the original than this.

SS: Pseudo-Hum is right. Aside from some double-kick drum and the nu-metal scream of “And we wouldn’t know!” it’s a too-faithful take on “Comin’ Home.” Yawn. Speaking of takes on “Comin’ Home,” do you remember the original live version that was floating around before Downward came out? I always thought the chorus was “I’ll treat you like a son,” which killed me, but the It's Gonna Be a Midget X-Mas version is “I’ll treat you like a sound,” which I also like.

DA: Yes! I loved that version of “Comin’ Home”, and I think I might even still have an .mp3 of it somewhere. I listened to it enough to be bummed when such a different version appeared on Downward. That original was so powerful! There was an early bootleg of “Dreamboat” that was just awesome, too. Speaking of misheard lyrics; I always thought the end of the chorus on “The Pod” was “Wait, wait on me, yeah”, but on [Damn] This Desert Air’s version, it’s “Way, way on the end” (and what sounds like “Way, way on the edge” the second time). That puts the mood of the song in a totally different context for me.

11. The Esoteric's "Iron Clad Lou"

SS: I knew this was coming. The monotone post-hardcore/nu-metal bellow points its finger right in my face. The rigid arrangement opens up a bit on the bridge with dueling solos, but it all sounds like an exercise. No, you do not win.

DA: I actually appreciated this one. I loved the attempt to make it their own. Do I think it worked? No. But I will take this a thousand times over the “Comin’ Homes” and “If You are to Blooms” on this tribute. I appreciate the effort. Maybe it would work better with a band like Glassjaw, or something else along those lines. The Esoterics have me interested in the possibilities, which is more than most of these covers.

SS: I like the idea of a Hum tribute band named The Comin’ Homes.

12. Tent's "Little Dipper"

DA: I don’t even know what to say about this one. "Little Dipper" is arguably my favorite Hum song ever, but is this even a cover? The only recognizable element is the lyrics (which are barely audible in the original). I give them props for the crazy originality, but I feel like this is more in the realm of appropriation than cover. It’s not awful musically, but I feel like it’s a fork in the road pointing to A) Hum or B) Clouddead. Not exactly a cohesive take one of Hum’s more transcendent songs. Even after more than one listen, the music has absolutely no similarity to the original for me. I love Failure, but I’m not giving Kellii Scott a pass on this one.

SS: It’s a cover of “Little Dipper,” a song that thrives on its waves of guitar riffs, done with no prominent guitar parts. Instead, they’re replaced by up-front drums, piano, strings, and spoken word vocals that turn the sci-fi romance of the original version into weird threats. There’s heavy breathing, for fuck’s sake. You’re right that there’s no similarity to the original on a musical level, but I’ve heard covers that take that route and still succeed (Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio’s “The Guns of Brixton” comes to mind). What bothers me most here is the abandonment of the original sentiment.

13. Stomacher's "Why I Like the Robins"

SS: If you'd told me that one of these covers would be undone by an irritating vocal affect, I would have presumed it was Junius, but Stomacher sabotages an otherwise acceptable version of "Why I Like the Robins" with its overly manicured delivery. Most of it is par for the course, but they add some nice guitar textures to the outro.

DA: I never loved this song in the first place (except the song title, which weirdly has always been one of my favorites), but once again I am annoyed by the proximity (close, but worse) to the original. I can’t say I am actually irritated by the vocal effects as much as you are, but this song is more boring than the original and adds nothing new, save for a nice effects-laden outro.

14. The Felix Culpa's "Puppets"

DA: “Puppets” is one of my favorite Hum songs, but mostly because it’s recorded with an excitement by the band that isn’t found on any other release (perhaps due to the members switching instruments on the recording). This cover basically takes all of that excitement away, which is unfortunate. It isn’t horrible to listen to, but I feel like it’s lost its essence.

SS: This was when my “I really just want to listen to the original version” impulse kicked in. It’s a faded carbon copy. “Puppets” is a great song, but I don’t know how much any group could have done with it. Once you lose the forward momentum of the original, it falls flat.

15. Funeral for a Friend's "Green to Me"

SS: These Welsh post-hardcore/emo guys try their damnedest to turn "Green to Me" into a power ballad, but pulling out the heavy guitars, adding IDM-for-beginners beats, and going super MOR on the vocals just makes the song boring, if not elevator-ready.

DA: The intro was nice for all of about 25 seconds. Once again, someone emphasizes just how bad Hum would suck without Matt Talbott as the frontman. Even Guns’N’Roses could have made a better power ballad out of this song. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this on next week’s episode of Teen Mom.) This is probably the worst song on the album, despite the band’s effort to make it original (which I am usually on board with). My god, I just want to turn it off.

16. Alpha Stasis's "Scraper"

DA: I always hated "Scraper" back in the day because it was so hardcore, but I have recently come to appreciate it a lot more. This song does an okay job of capturing that energy, but as with the rest of the album, it is too similar to the original. The Electra 2000 version is better, and it’s actually Hum, so what’s the point of listening to this? There is absolutely nothing new brought to the song. Isn’t this why you start a band in high school—to cover your favorite songs and get them to sound exactly the same? I feel like this would have been an amazing song for J. Robbins to appear on. Can you imagine Scraper sounding like "Savory"? We can wish.

SS: Now you’re making me imagine how great an Electra 2000 covers record fronted by Jawbox-era J. Robbins would be. Thanks a lot.

I’m tempted to just criticize the original, which is one of the weaker links on Electra 2000. Its two-chord trade-off plods, Talbott’s delivery is trying, and the lyrics are painfully confessional without the filter of some science-fiction narrative. The best part is the spoken word bridge: “Say hi to your folks / be nice to your lunchmeat,” etc. Aside from tossing out that bridge, Alpha Stasis mostly gives “Scraper” a modern production update, at least until the nu-metal “Yours make me cry!” scream. I got a laugh out of that one.

SS: Wrapping up, are there any songs you’d wished a band had tackled?

DA: I would have loved to hear the namesake of the album, “Songs of Farewell and Departure” (always one of my favorite Hum songs). “Winder” would have been great. I also would have loved to hear a new take on “Shovel.”

SS: “Songs of Farewell and Departure” would have been a good pick. I would have liked to hear versions of "Afternoon with the Axolotls," "Winder," and "Isle of the Cheetah." Those all seem like songs that could be taken in vastly different directions and still hold up. Do you think a band could have done something different with “Diffuse”? Would you want to hear an aggro rendition of “The Very Old Man”?

DA: That’s a good question. I originally put “Diffuse” in my list of songs I would have wished for, but I took it off when I realized it probably would have just ended up another pseudo-Hum song. I think it would have ended up being treated the same as “I Hate It Too” or “The Pod”. “The Very Old Man” would be awesome, though. It’s always been my absolute least favorite Hum song, but I would love to see what someone (think Chad VanGaalen) could do with it.

SS: The moral of Songs of Farewell and Departure (and the vast majority of tribute records, to be fair) is that more of the bands needed to try different things with the material and actually pull off the concepts, not just aim for and easily achieve pseudo-Hum status. The hypothetical covers we've come up with interest me a lot more than the majority of songs here, although Actors & Actresses, Junius, Solar Powered Sun Destroyer, and Anakin deserve credit for their contributions.

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