Sonic Youth. Yo La Tengo. My Bloody Valentine. The Jesus and Mary Chain. It’s easy to understand why young bands like D.C.’s Big Hush keep returning to these indie touchstones for inspiration. They’re all based on the central premise that people who don’t like to talk (or sing) above a whisper can be guitar gods too. In an era where it seems like everyone is ALL CAPS-ing all the time, what could possibly be more appealing to an introspective musician than stirring up epic guitar squalls without ever raising an actual voice?
Spirit/Wholes is two different Big Hush EP’s (2015’s Who’s Smoking Your Spirit? and 2014’s Wholes) sewn together with a new single (“Soft Eyes”), added to sweeten the pot. Putting the newest song first is an interesting choice as it stands out from the other tracks with cleaner, more modern production and tighter musicianship. It’s also the song here that’s the least derivative of the aforementioned indie/shoegaze idols. It’s like getting an enticing glimpse of the present before going back in time to see how Big Hush reached this point.
“Pay to Play,” the second track on this makeshift LP, plays like the proper opener to the Who’s Smoking Your Spirit? side of Spirit/Wholes. It’s punky and melodic with a hard-burrowing earworm of a hook. There’s a twisted surf rock element to all of it that recalls those other icons, The Pixies. It’s like some wholesome fifties beach party being crashed by a hippie cult from the sixties.
“Say Anything,” follows in a similar shoegazey punk vein before quickly giving way to third track, “Cold Shoulder.” It’s the most overt MBV crib here, a wannabe Loveless B-side. Thankfully Big Hush has all the hallmarks of shoegaze down, which is saying a lot since it’s a genre that’s easy to imitate but hard to get right. There are the super-crunch distortion and oodles of tremolo wobble; whammy bars bend, and vocals (male and female) are cooed instead of projected. The band understands the importance that space and dynamics play in this sort of music, and apply and remove layers of noise with a painterly touch. On tracks like “Cold Shoulder,” Big Hush doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, but they do a respectable job of paying homage to their heroes.
Side A highpoint — “Cough,” rumbles up next. It comes on like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” but spins off into something more melodic and unwieldy. The guitars shift just beneath the vocals like tectonic plates before occasionally falling out altogether. Sure Kim Deal and Frank Black probably could’ve written this song, but it provides enough interesting twists and turns to stand on its own two feet.
Like many cases where two of a band’s EP’s are mashed into one album, the second side of Spirit/Wholes makes a stylistic leap back to a different era of Big Hush. This earlier version of the band is far less aggressive and warmer. While this is a big change in tone, it’s not an unwelcome one.
Side B songs like “Wholes” and “Wrong House” can’t hide their melodic sturdiness even though there’s a layer of lo-fi haze all over them. It gives these tracks a dreamy, romantic quality that subpar fidelity can lend excellent bands when utilized strategically. It demonstrates Big Hush’s versatility while also providing a lovely comedown from Side A’s raw burst.
If “Soft Eyes” is any indication Big Hush’s music is about to make yet another stylistic shift. This makes Spirit/Wholes a fascinating window into its steady evolution, and how it might one day steer its familiar influences toward an entirely new horizon.
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