[31 March 2013]
Hem have taken a long road to reach their destination. Their discography winds haphazardly through rough terrains, trying out different outlets, and occasionally diverting attention—much like the travelers and woodland animals that inhabit scenes of their songs. Listening to Hem is a lot like reading Robert Frost’s entire canon; there are moments of utter clarity and pastoral beauty, there are some odd experimental passages that work, and there are some that simply fall flat without touching any nerves. It’s all worthwhile, it’s just hard to sustain greatness.
And Hem is nothing if not a nerve-touching band. At times it sounds as if their entire foundation is built upon a tremulous whisper that makes grown men hug like affectionate children. But, they’ve had the specter of an impossible debut LP to live up to, as well. 2002’s sublime Rabbit Songs was a stark image of what a band could create with simple songwriting, acoustic stringed instruments, and the affective quality of Sally Ellyson’s golden voice. So strong is their pull and so delicate their songs that I don’t mind admitting that “Sailor” from Rabbit Songs is still tough for me to listen to without something unnameable welling up inside of me.
There are tracks that ascend to that type of elegance on Departure and Farewell, thankfully. Immediately, the juxtaposed beauty and pain of “Tourniquet” is the first noticeable track with immediate resonance, not only because of its mid-tempo melody, but also because of its lyrical and physical setting. The lyric “Brooklyn your war was just won by the South” begins the song’s mapping of the Brooklyn regions where the band resides. And, in one line, that’s what Hem does. They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.
Influences from these regions don’t define Hem, but they do color the outer edges of their songs, sometimes to brilliant effect, other times detrimentally. “Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing” sets up a whimsical piano dirge from the outset (not to mention a great song title) and then begins a New Orleans funeral band march interlude, breaking down into syncopated piano and brass band. The same fate befalls album closer, “So Long”. The song turns into an unnecessarily rollicking tune that is polished to a Nashville glow, complete with full-on gospel choir when a simple, brief coda might have sufficed in its place.
“Last Call”, the precursor to “So Long”, is a more natural ending point, if only because it hails lyrically back to one of Hem’s finest tracks off Rabbit Songs: “When I Was Drinking”. Thematically, it may as well be an unannounced sequel to “When I Was Drinking”: both tracks delve into profound pleasures of inebriation and are presented as tender love songs that just happen to involve enough alcohol to “get so high” that you blow all your money when the rent is due. In the realm of the humanistic, Hem have a sharp eye for the ways we get by day-to-day.
Departure and Farewell fits naturally beside Rabbit Songs, although driving the comparison home is unnecessary when tracks like “The Jack Pine”, “The Seed”, and “Tourniquet” all tread the same weightless, acoustic water. Hem have colored from the same palette since day one. But there are always hidden gems on their albums that only unfold after a few turns: the glockenspiel and double-tracked vocals of “Things Are Not Perfect In Our Yard”, and fullness of “The Tides At the Narrows”. Those are the hidden rooms where Hem work best; in the quiet, sunlit wooden floors of a still house, abandoned years ago. And the band members—Dan Messe and Gary Mauer, especially, who have designed much of Hem’s shoestring-orchestra sound—deserve extra credit for the attention to subtle detail on Departure and Farewell. Horn flourishes here, a series of piano notes there, give the album its steadiness, even when some tracks are overwhelmed by over extension.
Departure and Farewell isn’t made of what its title implies as much as it is imbued with a natural inclination to expect an ending to all things. The album was almost the band’s last after personal crises and other projects separated them from their music. By the end of the album, Hem don’t feel like they’re headed for a departure; rather, the momentum on the album is straight as the highways that litter the album’s cover. Hem may have taken a few secluded routes to arrive at their departure, but, like Frost suggested, sometimes its the road less traveled that’s more rewarding. Departure and Farewell is where Hem have come to rest and it may be their brand new beginning.