There's something strangely and pleasantly familiar about Hem, a group formed by songwriter Dan Messe and producer/engineer Gary Maurer in 1999. So familiar and gentle that when Rabbit Songs was originally released in 2001, it didn't exactly jump out of the stereo and beg to be noticed. Yet, someone at Dreamworks Records decided that the group deserved another chance. Hence, the Rabbit Songs re-release earlier this year.
Seldom does an act or an album get such second chances, and there's probably a compelling story behind this one. Maybe it was their grassroots following, file-sharing, or just plain 'ole word of mouth. No one has really bothered to find out why, it seems, despite the glowing press the band has received since the album was re-released. Well, I'm not about to go digging around too much for an explanation either, because, after several listens, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason for all of this post-coital attention.
Despite the intrigue of Ken Tucker's glowing assessment on NPR and the rash of rave reviews in the likes of industry heavyweights Rolling Stone and Mojo, Rabbit Songs leaves you wondering more than humming; wondering how a band so ordinary, so derivative, got such a rare second chance. Yet, let's be clear: this is a nice album with nice songs. If not for Norah Jones, this might have been your backyard-barbecue-with-friends soundtrack of the summer. But let's also be clear about this: if you have Blue-era Joni Mitchell in your collection, or anything by the Cowboy Junkies, or maybe even some Stephen Sondheim or Joan Baez, then you're likely to be a bit bored with Hem. The band's best work only evokes the songs of others.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Rabbit Songs isn't a complete disaster. After all, there's nothing wrong with backyard summer soundtracks, right? If you're looking for gentle lullabies to drink a nice glass of wine on the porch to, this is a decent option. There are the sounds of old-time jazz standards mixed with folky country music (like on the second track, "When I Was Drinking"), there are Mitchell-inspired ballads (see track number five, "Betting on Trains"), and there's even material that sounds like it came out of some old folk anthology (check out the brief opening track, "Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please").
Sally Ellyson has a nice voice, and Maurer and Steve Curtis, on guitar and mandolin, add just the right touches. Messe plays around on the piano, accordion, and glockenspiel to provide some of the more orchestral moments on the record. They all play their parts nearly perfectly. But with material so derivative, the songs are stripped of any heart and soul. I'm betting that's why the band garnered so little attention the first time around. This time, I'm not sure whose coat tails they're riding; what trend Dreamworks thinks they are capitalizing on. There's another album out there mining some of this same territory, but without the same paint-by-numbers result that comes from being a prisoner of your influences. You want a backyard record that resonates, one that also infuses much-needed soul in the very best of the R&B tradition? Check out Ohio by Over the Rhine. Until Hem gets past the mimicry of Rabbit Songs, it's a better bet.