Hem is the perfect NPR band. The lush, beautiful, literary, and intelligent music that they create is too uptown for country radio, too smart for commercial stations, and too good for everything in between. These Manhattanites playing Southern Americana found their audience on NPR, much akin to Norah Jones and Christopher O’Riley. Their debut, Rabbit Songs fared well with the literate and informed adult set. Twanging pedal steel combined with muted pianos and an 18-piece orchestra was the `just right’ mix of traditional sounds to appeal to the cultured few. And so Hem continues with their sophomore release Eveningland.
Piano player and band founder Dan Messé sought to create a certain sound when putting the pieces of Hem together. He placed an ad in The Village Voice for a singer and received a response from an amateur with a tape of lullabies. Sally Ellyson was just what Messé was looking for to complete the ensemble. Since their inception, Hem has garnered numerous comparisons to female fronted quiet alt-country artists such as the Cowboy Junkies, Shivaree and Beth Orton. The comparisons are not too far off, but Hem has something somewhat intangible, a soothing quietness that lulls the listener into a trance and rocks him gently to sleep amongst the creepers hanging from Southern trees.
Every song on Eveningland, aptly titled, is a lullaby, much like the songs Ellyson recorded on her demo for the band. In the first track, “The Fire Thief,” Messé’s lyrics even reference the most famous lullaby of all:
“The sun that’s going down the bed that breaks the fall
The cradle and the bow
So you can take comfort now”
But these are no mere lullabies to sing to children, they are tales for adults, stories of heartbreak and damage, sung in a way to sooth grownup worries and send them off to the magical place of the album’s title. Messé pens songs of love and hope along with darkness and sorrow, all culminating into a bedside confessional. Take “My Father’s Waltz”:
“Throw your overcoat over a chair
And lay all your lazybones down
May this night keep you here
Themes of night, sleep, and dreams abound in Eveningland, making the album true to its namesake, a collection of songs with similar linking ideas, almost a book of short stories.
But besides the country twangs and sleepy strings, there is also a pop sensibility such as in the song “Redwing” which at times I could swear was sung by Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays. Two instrumental numbers, “Cincinnati Traveler” and the title track, “Eveningland” couldn’t be more dissimilar. The former, based mostly on banjo, mandolin, and violin is distinctly front porch Southern, as if it were meant for the soundtrack to Cold Mountain, while the latter is a lush orchestral piece that could have easily found its way into the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. There are even times throughout other songs on the album when other comparisons can be made to music from that film, specifically to Stina Nordenstam’s “Little Stars,” a song appearing, of course, at night as a lullaby.
One cover song appears on Eveningland, that being the Johnny and June Carter Cash classic, “Jackson.” In Hem’s rendition, the song is less like a country standard, and more like a sweet pop ballad, a la Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” This is one of those few and far between times that an artist can take a song and make it their own.
Eveningland is a stunning and gorgeous work. Its emotionally drenched lullabies are near perfection. Ellyson’s voice singing Messé’s words atop elegant strings and traditional twangs makes one think that this music was effortless, as if it had been around forever, simply waiting for the right vessels to convey it to the literate masses. And as we lay our heads down on our pillows at the close of each day, we could do no better than employing Hem’s dulcet sounds to send us to Eveningland.
Natalie Merchant- The House Carpenter’s Daughter
The Sundays- Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic
Mazzy Star- So Tonight That I Might See