What is the hum? Well, it’s the sound of people, bees, factories, beer filling a glass, drilling, horses, foxes, prison doors, babies, bombs and birds. Life, basically. Only… it’s a bit more complicated than that. The Hum, the new album from Yorkshire duo Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, explores this ambitious range of topics – and a whole lot more – with heartening ambition and sincerity.
The opening (title) track sets things up smartly. Inspired by the story of a house sale that fell through because of the humming of a local factory, the song extrapolates the tale into an ominous warning about the fragility of community. The duo’s voices chime in insistently as producer Gerry Diver’s howling background strings add further tension to the driving refrain. It’s deeply impressive and – surprisingly, perhaps – really catchy.
The album is shot through with intelligence and empathy. Two Mothers explores the British-Australian child migration scheme with moving sensitivity, while Coil & Spring praises the “spanner in the works” political protests of Russian punk-feminists Pussy Riot to a background of clattering, confident drums.
The duo cover past and present, personal and political, with aplomb. Come Down from the Moor explores Ireland’s history of poverty, and concludes with a poignant poem read by O’Hooley’s father. Peculiar Brood looks at suicide bombing through the life of birds, and haunting finale Kitsune continues the animal theme via the Japanese folk tale of a fox that becomes a human woman. It’s as thought-provoking as it is musically adventurous; a swirl of piano, cymbals and electronic strangeness that calls compellingly for a world with more acceptance.
The album features two covers – Ewan MacColl’s Just a Note (which, in another canny move from Diver, features pneumatic drill percussion), and Nic Jones’ Ruins by the Shore. O’Hooley is a member of Jones’ touring trio, but rather than recreate his version, the duo instead present a dreamier take on the song, filled with space, woozy harmonies and a majestic swell.
O’Hooley & Tidow, you’ll have gathered, don’t do predictable. Even Summat’s Brewin’, an ode to the pleasures of real ale, sidesteps the straight-up drinking song angle and instead peers through the bottom of the glass at revolution, community and the place of the pub. Mind you, it works as a great pint-raiser, too – and is surely a live favourite by now.
Though the duo employ additional instruments carefully (the slide guitar and autoharp on Two Mothers and the squeezebox on the title track are particularly nice touches), centre stage is wisely given to O’Hooley’s inventive piano playing, and the pair’s clear, strong voices. This is their third album together and, as you might expect, their musical understanding is seemingly instinctive.
The Hum’s cover depicts O’Hooley and Tidow in a focused calmness – apparently listening closely to something. This optimistic, thoughtful album deserves the same treatment. The hum is everywhere…
The Hum is out on No Master on February 17