Turning on the radio, computer, or television can seem like a gamble, at best. Each new tuning offers a deluge of anxieties to greet us. In the face of this 21st century tumult, Humming House is on a quest. They do not want to wish away the pain and fear all too real in our lives, but to put those elements in conversation with the elements that sustain us: hope, partnership, even joy. And so, their newest album begins with Tam’s unmistakable voice intoning, “I want to be your companion.”It’s an appropriate beginning for a band who has built itself on complex musicianship and careful collaboration. They know the value of hard work and compromise. Their music is evidence of the thrill of creativity.
Humming House is Justin Wade Tam, Bobby Chase, Joshua Wolak, and Benjamin Jones. The band grew out of jam sessions that Tam held in his living room in East Nashville—evidence that some of the best projects come from spontaneous collaboration and the subsequent seeing it through. Now, three albums and six years later, Humming House continues to embody what is best about the Nashville each transplant chooses to call home. That the members of Humming House derive from different parts of the country, from San Diego to Detroit, Granville, OH to D.C., means that they bring different skills and sounds to the collaboration that forms the heart of the band. Tam may be the soul of the project, but Chase, Wolak, and Jones’ musicality, their counter melodies and rhythmic leads, means that every song is a new experience.
What Humming House does so well is paint sonic landscapes that are at once compelling and honest, even in the most rollicking of songs. Revelries, Humming House’s second full-length album released in 2015, was largely influenced by the band’s history of touring. Its songs revealed the power and revelations that come from travel. Companion, to be released by Soundly on the 6th of October 2017, continues to pursue that which transforms. In part, it is still movement, movement that comes easily to the body as well as movement driven by the unease we daily brush up against. What’s most powerful about Humming House is their ability to be present with you, to take those moments in life that seem mundane and shift the lens so that they are rendered extraordinary. Theirs is a music of presence.
Humming House maintains that sense of intimacy that derives from making music with friends altogether in the same room. It is fun combined with substance. With Tam’s sincerity, Jones’ groove, and Chase and Wolak’s charm, their live shows extend the invitation to participate. As Dustin Ogdin observes in No Depression, “Humming House exudes restraint and a wily intelligence. They never pander to their crowd, but do respect them. They also seem to understand that the best music comes from an exchange between artist and audience rather than simply one giving and the other receiving.” Their live shows are tight and compelling because their goal, as Tam says, is “to make great songs, first and foremost.” Their strengths have been recognized as is evidenced by having worked with Grammy winning producers, played venues ranging from listening rooms to cruise ships, clubs to festivals, and having opened for artists such as Kacey Musgraves, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and Emmylou Harris.
These essential traits of Humming House are evident in Companion. The story of the album mirrors the story of the band: it’s one of collaboration, experimentation, and showing up for each other over and again. There are songs of hope and of desperation so that the prevailing mood is one of exchange and balance. The album was recorded, for the most part, in different studios in East Nashville and shaped by four producers and engineers, Jordan Lehning, Ed Spear, Allen Salmon, and Eric Masse, who brought different but important insights, pushing the band further into a new sound. Lehning’s direction and Spear’s mixing give the album cohesion. It’s the subtle, but complex melding of styles and opinions that make Companion unmistakably a Humming House project. After all, it’s collaboration that shows what’s the best in each of us.
In the spirit of experimentation, the band threw out the constraining rule that they would only write with their acoustic instruments. While those sounds still center the creative impulses of the songs, the added electric experimentation and expanded instrumentation imbue the new songs with a dynamism that is irresistible. Tam notes that the “extremes of the record in emotion are wider on this album. There’s more desperation, but there’s also fun and an upbeat aspect that’s more joyous.” The first half of the album is infused with Indie Rock, especially in songs such as “Can’t Stay Away,”“Takin’ Over,” and “Make it Through.” The influence of quirky 90s rock, a la Cake, is there too. “Takin’ Over” adheres to the Humming House desire to move you and is emblematic of those moments in our lives where the rhythm of the things that we love: music, friends, family commandeer our bodies until we’re compelled to move in joy.
“Sign Me Up” and “Companion” nod to Paul Simon while “Silver Lining,”“Find What Waits,” and “London” gesture to Humming House’s long engagement with classical composition and songwriter driven melodies so strong in the realm of Americana. The album isn’t all hip swinging bravado; halfway through, “Silver Lining” will stop and compel you to attend to the broken things that shape us. “Make it Through”and “Hope in My Head” are prisms to transform difficult days into livable ones. “I Want It All” does justice to the nostalgia and influence of a favorite album, while “Sign Me Up” conveys the increasing distance between our digital, urban lives and the ecosystems that sustain us.
“Wishing Well” is a late album gem. It opens with the observation, “Be patient with the ones you love / because we’re not here for long enough / to judge,” and so the song is an invitation to come to terms with our collective humanity, a difficult enough feat in the current torrid climate of politics, environmental concerns, and general unease. Thankfully, Humming House is dedicated to honest songwriting, attending to the complex interactions that shape us, and is committed to being present with us in their albums and live shows. What choice do we have but to respond? Theirs is a music that places us.