[2 March 2006]
Usually, the follow-up album for a band with an acclaimed sophomore release would be, well, another album. Hem, however, has released No Word From Tom, a collection of covers, live tracks, and revisited songs from their first two albums— Rabbit Songs (2003) and Eveningland. (2004) Although the Brooklyn-based band cannot be described as prolific just yet, their collaboration with the Slovak Radio Orchestra album indicates an intricate process that must have resulted in more than a few outtakes.
The full version of the instrumental track “Eveningland” presents the cinematic grandeur that Hem is known for. The previously unreleased “The Present” is a perfect sleepy example of countrypolitan, which is the genre that gives a pop production sheen to the classic country structure. No flourished dobro is wasted. Each song still pools around Sally Ellyson’s captivating voice. The track listing begins with “All the Pretty Horses” and ends with “The Golden Day Is Dying”, both of which served as Ellyson’s answering machine-recorded audition for the band, and highlight the strength of her vocals. Her voice is comparable to Margo Timmons of the Cowboy Junkies for its understated, effortless timber and country influences, though the Cowboy Junkies is a little bit Annie Get Your Gun, and Hem falls more towards Pollyanna and her jug.
Not only does this album exemplify countrypolitan in sound, but it does so in the organic transformation and development of folk songs as well. An instrumental version of Eveningland’s “Cincinnati Traveler” is included, and reinvented once again as “The City and the Traveler” later in the album. This came about when the “original lyrics and melodies were misheard.” Additionally, in order to perform complicated songs such as “Betting on Trains” and “Idle” live, the band was forced to adapt arrangements and instrumentation by substituting pedal steels for strings and discovering other creative means for getting around the minor issue of the lack of a traveling 18-piece orchestra set.
Some of the most appealing songs are the covers that range from the befitting “Tennessee Waltz” to gorgeous reinterpretations of less obvious selections such as Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and R.E.M.‘s “South Central Rain”. On Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe”, which may have found its way onto the listing due to Gary Maurer’s production credit on that album, the tambourines and wahwah pedals of the original are gone, but none of the pop liveliness is lost. Instead, it’s retained by way of Ellyson’s controlled, hushed immediacy. Deftly applied upright basses and mandolins to these modern covers reaffirms that this is not the sound of a bygone era confined to the foothills of Appalachia, but rather that it is just as pertinent to present-day Brooklyn.
On the original albums, Hem weaved emotional soundscapes through soaring orchestrations, but No Word From Tom is a slight departure from these fully executed orchestral arrangements, allowing both the band and listener to breathe a bit easier. It imparts a certain levity not seen before, and creates a more diversified mood. Although some may miss the heavily layered textures that the band is known for, the idea of reinvention and carefully constructed arrangements is beautifully showcased.