My wife bought this album after we saw/heard the band interviewed on CBS and NPR. I was a little skeptical, but maybe only because I wasn’t really paying attention. The networks played up the story of how Dan Messe assembled Hem thanks in part to a demo of lullabies given him by now vocalist Sally Ellyson (read more at the band’s website), a fine tale but no guarantor of a successful debut release. Memorable, melodic songwriting and precise arrangements are a good start, however, and with those Rabbit Songs garnered my attention.
As a female-fronted band driven by a male songwriter, Hem has more in common with pop outfits like Sixpence None the Richer and Ivy than femme folkies like Gillian Welch. Sonically, however, the band has an undeniable folk/Americana aesthetic, which merits comparison to other neo-twang acts like Tarnation, Mojave 3, and Lambchop (as distinct from alt-country groups like Uncle Tupelo and it’s offspring). These bands benefit from an outsider-ears phenomenon, meaning they don’t have folk or country and western backgrounds, and/or audiences, and/or record labels. (Brooklyn-based Hem couldn’t get further “outside” the realm of rural America without moving to Tokyo.) Consequently, they are less cloistered by habit and expectations, empowered to borrow only the sounds and styles that drew them to American roots music. They lean toward minimalist arrangements, subtly employing the evocative twang of steel guitar or banjo while avoiding the cliches of the genre(s).
That Messe and company have an ear for C & W nuance is apparent at the first strain of pedal steel, which intertwines gracefully with violin beneath Ellyson’s tender-voiced delivery on “When I Was Drinking,” a recovering alcoholic’s semi-nostalgic retrospective on a doomed romance. Hem’s measured use of violin (in this setting fiddle might be more appropriate nomenclature, but I defer to the liner notes) and mandolin lend an Appalachian air to the record. Though, by taking a cue from Down From the Mountain, et al. and pushing harmonizing vocals to the fore on more tracks Hem could achieve a fuller sound without straying from their chosen idiom. When evident the harmonies shine, as on “Horsey,” and the comparatively rousing chorus of “Night Like a River,” the lone sampling of mandolin player Steve Curtis’s songwriting.
Hem uses strings and woodwinds (oboe, clarinet, flute) liberally, but not to excess. From the understated atmospherics of “Betting on Trains” to the euphoric heights of “Stupid Mouth Shut,” the arrangements melt with piano, guitar, and most importantly vocals. All too often musicians, perhaps enamored with the possibilities of studio recording, swirl these elements in an ecstatic din. On Rabbit Songs, by contrast, Hem demonstrates a fine collective ear for what constitutes “just enough.” (Guitarist/songwriter, Gary Maurer, may deserve particular credit for his roles in production, recording, and mixing.) The end result is that the music bolsters, rather than obfuscates, the songwriting, which is after all the stuff of folk music. Similarly, Ellyson’s delivery is, at it’s best, soft yet evocative.
Lyrically, Messe alternates between poetic imagery, often nostalgic, and more straightforward storytelling. With “Lazy Eye” he makes of the physical condition a metaphor for persistent memory: “I can still see the hem of your dress and the comb as it’s parting your hair, and the person I held is still there in my lazy eye…” In “All That I’m Good For,” he parallels a strung-along lover and a stray dog: “You know I play with all those strays prowling outside your door. It’s the scraps of love you throw my way that have got me on all fours. It’s only fair your knew, all that I’m good for is you.” Some songs, and some lines, are more striking than others, and a few lyrics are simply vehicles for melody. Yet, when combined with selective instrumentation the end result is a surprisingly memorable album, given that it doesn’t demand your attention.