When RCA signed Hum in 1994, a Champaign quartet playing mammoth guitar rock was a pretty safe bet: Soundgarden and Dinosaur Jr were riding high, and some people still talked about "the Chicago scene" without chuckling. And as it turned out, Hum's first record for RCA, You'd Prefer an Astronaut (1995), sold a respectable 250,000 copies in the U.S. But now Soundgarden and Dinosaur Jr are history, and with everybody proclaiming the death of guitar rock, Hum's long overdue follow-up, Downward Is Heavenward, will have to stand on its own. Luckily it does; like the earlier record, Heavenward offers up crushing slabs of noise shot through with strange textures, odd meters, and shimmering guitar lines. "Isle of the Cheetah," for instance, begins with a heavily phased tape loop. A major seventh fades in, gently strummed in modified waltz time, and after the requisite deluge of distorted bar chords, a delicate piano arpeggio glides over the storm. The finer points may not be apparent to the casual listener, but close study reveals that two guitars can still accommodate a wide range of ideas. And when the distortion falls away completely on the groovy pop detour "Ms. Lazarus" guitarists Matt Talbott and Tim Lash demonstrate a sure sense of harmonic interplay. Tunesmiths they're not--Talbott's vocal lines are more likely to bounce around a familiar tritone than find a timeless hook--but as a healthy specimen of an endangered species, Hum proves that noise and nuance can peacefully coexist. Friday, 6:30 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Allison Dyer.