Though the individual tracks stand strong, The Hum's corner-cutting arrangement obscures and frustrates its most important asset: momentum.
It’s hard to find a problem with Hookworms' newest album, The Hum, but not because it’s flawless. Far from it as there are a number of major structural missteps on the album. But because what works about it works so well, it’s a shame to pick at it. When the album is on, it is on. Witness the way The Hum opens with “The Impasse", a wild jolt of electricity that manages against all odds to marry the warm haze of psychedelic organs, garbled vocals and nearly-too-distorted guitars with razor-sharp drums -- they seem to stab more than bludgeon -- to produce a speed-freak's ideal slice of rock.
There’s a similar energy at work on all the best tracks of the album. “Radio Tokyo" sounds like a reanimated Stereolab track, except this time the revival was good for it, the rot and dirt agents of life rather than of death. “On Leaving” has a spectacular moment at the two-minute mark. The muddy vocals drain out of the song, the fuzzy mist established by the droning organ part evaporates, and the drums and guitar come out with a speed and clarity not far removed from a knife’s. These examples let you know the boys in Hookworms might be fans of the psychedelic '60s, but they aren't beholden to it. They have their own way of doing things and a sense of speed that will never blister but will at least get your feet warm.
And therein lies the problem. With a more deliberately, or less lazily, constructed set list, this album would be world class. As it is, the band practices moderation a little too often and nowhere is this more evident than in the transitional tracks “iv", "v", and "vi". Ostensibly bridges that might make the change in momentum from song to song more palatable, what these short cuts do instead is excuse the band to make a track list that is lazier than it has any right to be. There’s nothing wrong with slower tracks, such as the obviously Lungfish-inspired “Off Screen” or the too-appropriately titled “Retreat”. In fact, as stand alone songs or as part of a slower, relaxed album these would be standout titles, the kind of meditative psych-rock that you could (and which many bands have) built a small cult on. The slurred voice of MB turns the lyrics into a poorly enunciated mush that rises to join the gently floating instruments to form music that doesn't merely invite relaxation but compels it.
As part of a larger, coherent work that trades best in momentum, though, such spacey interludes are more than unwelcome. They are jarring, like speed bumps on those fabled stretches of the Autobahn where speed limits are nonexistent, and comparatively dull. When one’s been keyed up by the martial stamp of “Beginners” and the masterful twist in rhythm that comes at the midsection, one hardly wants to slow down to the meandering stroll of “v”. It’s easy enough to excuse the album for its mistakes, given how solid an effort this is, but it would be as lazy as the track arrangement. All albums are of a piece, after all, and it’s clear that Hookworms had a scheme of some kind in mind when they organized The Hum as they did. Otherwise, why not simply drop those clearly transitional tracks? The problem is that Hookworms used these numbers as shortcuts. The changes in tempo feel like a product of laziness as opposed to the result of careful arrangement. It’s as if the band were insistent that they include the six vocal tracks on the album but recognized the difficulty in connecting them and so settled to justify the massive changes in style and tempo by soldering everything together with filler.
Don’t take that to mean that Hookworms are a band to miss out on or that The Hum deserves a pass. This is top-notch psychedelic rock, in so many ways better than all those ancient bands and songs it’s built upon, but it’s presented in such a garbled way that the songs often lose their impact. Listen to them in isolation or divided by their styles and you can’t go wrong, but avoid listening to the album straight through. Otherwise, you may miss out on what makes all of this so darn fun.