Review Summary: Hum turns out a great set of songs in "You'd Prefer an Astronaut", creating an atmosphere that is best likened to, well, staring at the night sky – it’s all achingly beautiful, but you can’t help but feel a bit sad at how small and insignificant you
Insecurity is a bitch. There's no way to hide from it, and if an insecure person ever tries to confront their problem, it will, by the nature of the feeling, make them more insecure than they were previously. There are, therefore, very few ways to deal with this issue. HUM is a very insecure band. With good reason, also. Although they never could have known this back when recording "You'd Prefer an Astronaut," it would end up selling poorly, yet wind up being their best seller. It's criminal, really. There's a video of them on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHp-7JjEaUQ ) that shows them playing their only hit 'Stars' on 120 Minutes. They look nervous as hell. You can almost feel it at the beginning of the performance, as Mike tentatively sings those nearly famous lyrics "Thinks she missed the train to mars, she's out back counting stars," while staring dead at the floor. Then the song kicks in. All of that insecurity is, at least for a few moments, washed aside in a blast of distortion and cymbals, as this kind of geeky group cathartically lays their song down for the greater population to hear. "You'd Prefer an Astronaut" carries this split personality throughout, delicate, soft and insecure at some points, and at others crushingly loud. The atmosphere this dichotomy creates is best likened to, well, staring at the night sky – it's all achingly beautiful, but you can't help but feel a bit sad at how small and insignificant you are.
There are some great moments of musicianship throughout the album, wether it be some of the best riffing in alt-rock history, or a few really nice moments from the rhythm section. Jeff Dimpsey in particular has to be the most under appreciated drummer of all time. His cymbal work is truly something to be marveled, and really adds quite a bit to the swelling nature of the music. The vocals from Matt Talbot fit this music perfectly, being a human anchor in the big scary universe around him, although some listeners may find his 'screaming' on songs like "The Pod" to be a bit grating.
All of this isn't to say this album is without its weak points, however. "The Very Old Man" and "Songs of Farewell and Departure" in particular kind of sputter and go nowhere. This is especially apparent in "Songs of Farewell and Departure", as it goes nowhere for nearly six and a half minutes. It's not quite as bad as "The Very Old Man", however, which really kills the momentum the album had up until that tragic song choice. Some of the other songs also suffer from this sprawling songwriting. "The Suicide Machine" should have been a minute or so shorter. When HUM nails a song, however, they're the best rock band around. "Stars" is obviously a monster of a song, supported by an orgasmic riff and lyrics that totally sum up the way you feel about that girl that doesn't say much in your advanced physics class. "Little Dipper" is a fantastic introduction to the album as well, casting you into a universe where the nebula and black holes are represented by swirling walls of distortion rather than gravity and gasses. "I'd Like Your Hair Long" is a great example of how HUM's sprawling song-writing sensibilities can work under some circumstances. It has a few distinct sections, which give it an almost Prog-Rock feel, but each section has an identifiable hook and is engaging to the listener. It hints at what was to come on their next album, the equally brilliant, yet more consistent "Downward is Heavenward".
Insecurity is a fact of life for HUM. They were too straightforward for the underground, but just never seemed to catch on with the mainstream. It leaves them in an unenviable position for the aging process, and because of this many have declared HUM's albums to be lost gems from the alt-rock era. I think HUM's answer to whether or not this bothers them would be to turn their beat up guitars as loud as they'll go and blow your mind.