The story of Hem is as heartwarming as the sweet pastoral hymns which define their unusual and eclectic sound. A little known songwriter, Dan Messe bonds with producer/engineer Gary Maurer over their shared love of Americana, and through an ad in the paper discovers Sally Ellyson, a golden-tongued Cinderella-chanteuse whose humility kept her just shy of the limelight. They set to work in 1999 hammering out what came to be known as “countrypolitan”, or country folk tunes with modern orchestral inflections. Their charming self-produced debut Rabbit Songs sent awestruck ripples just below the radar of the music world. Their follow-up album, Eveningland, is the story of their evolution from these humble beginnings into a sophisticated, globe-trotting eight-piece, a group poised to carve out their niche in the worlds of both chamber pop and alt-country. Intelligent and honest, their music pushes beyond the realm of nostalgia music and into a new revolutionary form that combines the folk traditions of regional Americana with motifs of contemporary globalism. With expert skill, Hem crafts a soundscape that muses on the present by reminiscing on the collective memory of a romanticized past.
Eveningland is a patchwork of distant influences as far flung as the film scores of Aaron Copland, the soft-country of the Carpenters, the sultry sweetness of Dusty Springfield, and the haunting timbres of the Slovak Radio Orchestra, who appear as collaborators on the album. Countrypolitan quite aptly describes the mélange of gently swelling strings, pastoral lyrics, and folksy mandolin and steel guitar timbres. The fusion of chamber music and roots country is not all that surprising, given the rising popularity of chamber pop groups such as Belle and Sebastian, but what is surprising is how they manage to balance the integrity of the folk music style with the vast intellectual weight of the art-music concept. Yet, precarious balance is just what makes the music of Hem so appealing. Strings swell to titanic proportions only to suddenly pull back, allowing a scintillating glimpse of a tinny mandolin phrase. Ellyson’s voice is similarly enigmatic, at times as soft and low as a whisper and at others as bold and clear as cathedral bells. Songs like “Lucky” demonstrate her awesome vocal agility and the group’s talent for orchestral balance, as the refrain grows in intensity and instrumental layers yet never masks the nuances of Ellyson’s velvety voice. Messe is a master of writing songs that sound like American standards; his focus on solid refrains brimming with uncomplicated yearning and verses that speak to the salt of the earth feel seem to be born of a separate time and place. Ballads to lost love and flowering fields that normally feel cliché are given new life in songs like “Stray” that simultaneously invoke parochial hymns and bold contemporary soundscapes.
The album is remarkably consistent, with the unfortunate consequence that there are very few tracks that distinguish themselves from the rest. The result is not so much disappointing as it is remarkably seductive. The unique world Hem sews together from the patchwork fragments of contemporary and romanticized worlds is intoxicating. The magic of Eveningland is no accident, and as the album’s title suggests, the concept conveyed is that of transformation, enchantment, and the liminal worlds of memory and dreams. As singer Ellyson puts it, “[it’s] like you’re falling back into memory, the safety and wonder of a time that we all remember in this distant way.” The sensual quality of the music may be intoxicating, but beyond the album’s emotionalism lurks a quirky wit, as on “Dance With Me”, one of the album’s most upbeat track, featuring an ingenious beat that feels rhythmically natural and yet, ironically, is impossible to dance to. Other songs are astonishing for the creativity with which they employ unusual yet somehow familiar timbres, such as the gorgeous track “Hollow”, which features a riveting drum beat that swings ever so slightly to a low rumbling register, building an air of intrigue vaguely reminiscent of some long forgotten American myth. The majority of songs on the album are simply brilliant, and are as ingeniously crafted and skillfully wrought as any contemporary songwriting around.
For an album that feels so genuine and uncomplicated, Eveningland is in fact neither of these. Songs like “Jackson” feel honest yet are blatantly self-conscious references to places Hem has never really known, not only because the song is a cover of a June and Johnny Cash standard, but also because the group is from Brooklyn, not some tumble-weed strewn frontier town. In quoting from so much familiar Americana, there is a heightened sense of being situated in a time and place, yet the contemporary inflections force the realization that it is a fantasy world, a construction of cultural memories long lost in a hazy and romanticized past. As Copland himself once wrote, “It is insufficient merely to hear music in terms of the separate moments at which it exists. You must be able to relate what you hear at any given moment to what has just happened before and what is about to come afterward.” Like Copland, Hem’s resurfacing motifs of distant journeys, failed romance, and pioneering fears of loneliness and anonymity sinks a pipeline straight into the heart and soul of the American archetype that still resonates in the collective consciousness of popular culture. The haunting beauty of the album is born in part out of its musical perfection, graceful lyricism, and sensual orchestration. Yet, another part is Hem’s insistence on holding a mirror to the modern self, forcing the listener to hear the echoes of the past and winds of change.