The nucleus of Hem is Sally Ellyson’s voice, which gives voice to Dan Messe’s songs. The title of its latest, Funnel Cloud, was partly inspired by Ellyson’s whirlwind wedding day. Messe has explained this day as beginning with crystal clear weather, with the one exception of a small cloud puff in the far off distance. Before long, however, five tornadoes were touching down upon their Virginia locale. Ellyson has put it more succinctly by saying that her wedding took place in the middle of Hurricane Ivan.
Messe returned home to find his home flooded. Messes can be cleaned up after even the worst disaster. Personal disasters, on the other hand, are not quite so simple to tidy up. The week after Hurricane Ivan, Messe’s father died. Funnel Cloud may not blow like a full force gale, at least not musically. But it’s hard to ignore the troubles that inspired it, which run all through the lyrics.
Messe’s resignation at all his problems is expressed via “Too Late to Turn Back Now”. The song is about the realization that after a period of mourning, people just need to move on. “The Pills Stopped Working” continues this theme as it speaks about self-reliance. Sometimes no pill’s gonna cure your ill, to paraphrase an old song. Medications go out the window, and good old existentialism begins to kick in. The musical backing on “The Pills Stopped Working” includes the heaviest weather in Hem’s repertoire. It features a little harmonica, a touch of horns, and a whole lot of piano.
If your home is invaded, either by nature or by a human intruder, such an event can’t help but leave a lasting mark. Home and household fixtures are all over the songs on this CD. Titles like “Great Houses of New York” and “Almost Home” suggest the necessity of a secure home base. A title like “Curtains” uses a familiar interior fixture as the starting-off point for a song. Even “Hotel Fire” is a reminder that no hotel could ever replace home sweet home.
Hem is an impossible group to categorize. “Hotel Fire” is colored with pedal steel guitar, and “Old Adam” is driven by its distinctive dobro. So it’s a country act, right? Not so fast, cowboy! The next tune, “Great Houses of New York”, is a straight forward piano ballad that reminds you of Randy Newman—without, of course, all his irony and sarcasm. The sadness of the instrumental “The Burnt Over District” is intensified by its swelling string section.
Ellyson’s singing always stands out on these songs, no matter the style. Her voice is conversational, much like a storyteller relaying a personal story. The combination of Ellyson’s tales, put to these time-tested musical styles, makes almost everything Hem plays sound old. Hem may be playing songs that explore the ramifications of recent life events, but the group might just as easily be performing the soundtrack to one of Ken Burns’ historical documentaries. Although you’d expect to feel sad after hearing about Hem’s trials and tribulations, you’ll likely feel comforted and content, instead. I don’t know how to explain this effect. It just happens that way. Trust me.
Hem is made of some mighty strong thread; the kind that cannot be blown away by hurricanes or even deaths in the family. Once you’re born into this world, it’s already “Too late to Turn Back Now”, to borrow one of its song titles. This music is the soundtrack of moving on. It’s mostly quiet and considered, which suggests that it’s usually unwise to move too fast in the aftermath of a disaster. This recording also proves that hard times cannot destroy strong beauty. In spite of what these musicians have been through, Ellyson’s voice is relentlessly pretty. A Funnel Cloud may have touched down in Hem’s world, but you’ll walk away from this new work with the impression that all is well, or that it at least will be soon.