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With the possible exception of Bluebrain, I’m fairly sure no D.C. band got more coverage from City Paper this year than Hume. And while we certainly didn’t ignore the band’s LP-length EP from this fall, Penumbra—-its tightest cut, “Grip,” was featured in a One Track Mind column in May—-I think we erred by not reviewing the entire release. Hedging again: With the possible exception of Medications‘ Completely Removed, there wasn’t a better full-length indie-rock release from D.C. this year.
It’s something of a miracle that Hume’s Penumbra never meanders. It has five tracks, only one of which is under four minutes; two are over 10, and at times, both ease into lengthy cool-downs, crescendoing slowly but never boiling over while echo-chamber guitar effects streak like shooting stars. If all of that sounds to you like the makings of a mid-‘70s Pink Floyd record, well, you’re not totally off.
To be sure, much of the album fits into that grey area—that, ahem, penumbra—from slightly earlier in Floyd’s career: the intersection between psychedelia and prog. The record also shares, on the surface, indie rock’s recent taste for tricky rhythms and African guitar sounds like highlife and soukous. Take “Golden Hour,” Penumbra’s opener, in which out of a ponderous haze Hume erupts into the kind of chirpy, chromatic guitar stomp you’d find in a Vampire Weekend song. Then it stops, quickly taking a mathy, acrobatic turn while frontman Britton Powell sings, “I don’t want to know/the color of your room/because if the paint should chip…”
Whatever he’s actually singing about (declining to interfere in someone’s life for fear of messing it up? Interior decoration?), I couldn’t quite figure out. But by the time the song reaches its lengthy middle section—a piano-tickled, tension-accumulating interlude in which Powell’s honeyed vocals describe finding “the golden hour” with an unnamed other—I was fairly convinced Penumbra was, above all, a missive to the universe. It’s Day-Glo art pop, sure, but it also feels devotional.
The songs are lengthy, but they leave little empty space: At almost every moment, at least one instrument seems to be striking 16th notes, while others move in several different but complementary directions. Songs will give a little to waves of synths and fuzz, but rarely do they completely dissolve into them.
The best and most ruminative song is “Injera,” which Powell played on City Paper’s parking deck during last winter’s massive snowstorm, around when the band was recording Penumbra at Inner Ear with Hays Holladay, of Bluebrain. The track feels like a comedown—from a high, from a romance, from nature at its most oppressive—only it never manages to eschew the haze. Toward the end of the track it trips back into it, as gust-like distortion reaches high emotional pitch and quickly melts away. Meanwhile, the slow-burn theatrics seem to recast Powell’s meet-cute lyrics—at least, I think the song is about an encounter—to heavenly scale. Or maybe “Injera” is just about injera, the sour Ethiopian flatbread. It’s hard to tell. Either way, the song’s only direction is skyward.
Buy Hume’s Penumbra at Sockets Records.