Venus Hum: Big Beautiful Sky (MCA)

Their best songs will not only make you hum, they might just make you swoon.

Venus Hum is a Nashville-based group that sounds like nothing you’d expect to come from that city. The only way “country music” can be said to be relevant to this trio is that their music seems to be influenced by being out in the country. But not the country of pickup trucks, honky tonks, and free-roaming chickens (and dogs!); rather, Venus Hum seems inspired by the country that is characterized by vast fields of wildflowers, clear starry night skies, and lazy hours spent contemplating life by the side of a beautiful lake or stream. In other words, the pastoral side of it all is what hooks this group…and ultimately the listener.

Take the romance with nature (and romance!), slightly psychedelicized, that XTC engaged in on Skylarking; set it to rhythmic, keyboard-heavy electronic beats reminiscent of Depeche Mode; and add a versatile female vocalist (Annette Strean) who stylistically resembles Björk, Tori Amos, and Canada’s Jane Siberry at different times, and you have a rough idea of what Venus Hum sounds like. On Big Beautiful Sky, Strean, along with bandmates Kip Kubin (synthesizers and computers) and Tony Miracle (guitars, bass, synthesizers, computers, and backup vocals-just how does he manage all that in concert?) seems giddy about the beauty of life, maybe even a bit self-possessed in the sharing of her observations. This is a pretty happy album; the melancholy quotient is low. But it takes awhile for the album to really kick in. Early songs like “Hummingbirds,” “Soul Sloshing,” and “Alice” are pleasant, often danceable numbers that won’t necessarily make you reach for the “skip” button, but neither are they that different from a lot of other music out there. You’ll feel that you’re hearing a competent modern electronic/pop band with a pretty good singer.

Then, on the second half of the disc, beginning with the sensual and driving “Beautiful Spain,” the group starts to hit its creative stride. “The Bells” is a haunting composition in which Strean’s passion finally becomes truly palpable. “I ache to hear the bells, the bells, the bells/Hold my breath, hold my chest, wait for the bells, the bells” Strean sings, ringing the listener’s chimes in a big way, for sure. And Strean demonstrates her ability to reach for-and hit-the big high notes, the kind Björk often does in that dizzying way. Soft strings and a shifting rhythm track add to the overall potency of the track.

Then we get several more big, sparkling songs. There’s the peerless “Springtime #2,” one of the most ecstatic pieces I’ve heard in awhile. Strean recites a whole series of lyrics that comprise a seasonal serenade: “I’m picking poppies from the sky/Lawnmowers, bees, daffodils, sunbursts and moonbeams/ Dazzling dandelions,” she swoons, at one point letting out a beguiling sigh. Another lyric went “Hey you, get out here/Make music for the rest of the class,” a rather warm, inviting sentiment no matter which way you read it. The acoustic guitar that graces the track, and the immaculate arrangement, help make it one of the clear highlights of the recording.

On the alluring, infectious “Honey,” Strean becomes a perfect blend of Jane Siberry (the romantic feelings suddenly let loose from a normally reserved demeanour, the varying tone in her delivery) and Björk (some of the pitch leaping, and the rapture apparent in lines like “You may possibly be the most radiant thing/Honey running through me”). On “Sonic Boom,” Siberry leaves and Björk takes over; I would defy Ms. Strean to say she wasn’t influenced by Iceland’s favorite pixie on this rambunctious, but deleriously energetic and rhythmically exotic number. Only Björk’s quirky enunciation is missing here. The comparison, however, doesn’t detract from the song at all; it’s fantastic.

The sweet ballad “Bella Luna” closes things out, Strean returning to a more contemplative and personal mode of expression. Momentarily, she reminded me of that singer in 4 Non-Blondes who always used to annoy me, but Strean is fortunately restrained when she needs to be and ecstatic when the overall inspiration of the song calls for it.

Big Beautiful Sky isn’t quite a great album, and it does require several listens to fully appreciate its charms. But despite similarities to other artists, there is some great material on this recording, including a couple of the best songs delivered this year. And you can count me as a fan anytime you can find a way to evoke pastoral bliss (with a good beat!) on a record that tastefully uses the technology to get there. Venus Hum does that here; their best songs will not only make you hum, they might just make you swoon.

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