Album Review: Alain Johannes, Hum

Alain Johannes Hum

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His cigar-box guitar and finger strumming, acoustics and electrics populate the songs with due sense of personality, and as opener “Mermaid’s Scream” has echoes of Lullabies to Paralyze at the outset, backing moans and all, what unfolds from there finds a niche for itself that feels as much folk as rock, and perhaps takes some extra delight in dwelling between genres, the finger-dance-on-strings of the subsequent title-track giving a dreamy feel to go with Johannes‘ vocal melody, sounding humble but not at all simple, giving a feeling of space through echoes and backing keys or effects drone — a hum, suitably enough. As “Mermaid’s Scream” and “Hum” are the two shortest cuts on Hum at under two and a half minutes each, even as they complement each other there’s a momentum being built that hints at a straightforwardness of form that “Hallowed Bones” builds outward, taking that foundation of acoustic would-be-minimalism-if-it-weren’t-so-complex-ness and adding textures of vocal layers and string sounds.

Thinking of “Mermaid’s Scream” and the title-track as a foundation for Hum is a useful way of hearing the album, essentially teaches the listener how to hear it, setting the basis early for what stands to follow in “Hallowed Bones” and “Someone,” which returns to the acoustic guitar but keeps an arrangement of intertwining vocal layering in an almost call and response chorus, reminiscent of a contemplative Bowie but remaining smooth in the delivery. “Someone,” then is the back-to-ground reset before the more forwardly electric “If Morning Comes,” bringing percussion with it and a brooding atmosphere that, like “Hallowed Bones,” adds to its strumming rather than departs entirely from it. As the halfway point of the record, it is a well-placed turn, and the first song yet to top four minutes, which is more than enough time for it to affect its hypnotic rhythm and winding solo edge as it progresses through the wash of its second half.

Alain Johannes (Tom Bronowski)

I’m not sure if he’s handling all the instruments himself, but Johannes is in command of the proceedings one way or the other, and after “If Morning Comes” marches out, “Free” pulls back again to a single layer of voice over a finger-plucked guitar, like the title-track before it, effective in its shift, immediately recognizable, immediately familiar, and rife with purpose. There’s a fullness of sound that comes from Johannes‘ technique, but it creates a kind of tension as well for the simple fact that there’s so much melody happening at once. It’s serene, but it’s the serenity of looking at a river with a rushing undercurrent. You realize there’s a pull there even if on the top it seems more peaceful. So it is through “Free,” which is — if it needs to be said — gorgeous, and gives way to the darker blues of “Sealed,” vocals rougher in the tin-can-blues tradition to suit its lumbering guitar progression, centered more around the rhythm than melody. Is ambient blues a thing? It should be. And Johannes should probably spearhead it given what he does with “Sealed,” including the electrified solo ripped out in the song’s later reaches.

Time again to go to ground. “Here in the Silence” is a sweet folk melody filled out by keys or guitar or flute or whatever the hell it is, as well as the cigar-box strum, and leaves nothing unsaid after its sub-three-minute run, offering a quick reorientation before the penultimate “Nine” reframes the proceedings once again with electronic beats and Johannes‘ voice farther back in the distance, locking into what turns out to be one of Hum‘s finest hooks in the process. By the time Johannes gets there, “Nine” functions well alongside the rest of Hum precisely because it doesn’t quite fit. The album has to that point bounced back and forth through these shifts in arrangement, drawn together by mood, melody and Johannes‘ voice, and those elements are consistent in “Nine” as well, despite the difference of use to which they’re put.

“Finis” is a self-aware closer, hinting toward Americana as much as desert-delia, and one gets the sense that had he wanted it to, “Finis” could easily have worked as a harder rocker. Instead, though, it is one last return to the acoustic roots of the rest of the record, though it does flesh out as it proceeds, backing vocals and other whatnot helping to round off the record with a nod toward summary, even if the intention doesn’t seem to be to have it be complete in that regard. There are things Johannes is leaving unsaid here, and it’s not that that makes Hum unsatisfying in some way. Just the opposite. For an outing that carries itself in such unpretentious fashion, there’s an air of mystery and obscurity that comes through the atmosphere as yet another factor adding depth to Johannes‘ craft. We’re that not organic, the record would be a joke, but as it stands, Johannes is able to bring the audience with him on this apparently inward journey, and the going is all the more resonant for that.

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One Response to “Album Review: Alain Johannes, Hum

  1. Mark says:

    I still associate him mainly with Chris Cornell’s first solo album on which he performed just about every instrument. Played a lot with Mark Lanegan too. Need to give this a listen.

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