Friday, September 5, 2008

Handmade Music : Hem

Both my mom and my aunt have come to spend their retirement years in places much more “country” than the major metropolises they left behind. They now sport cowboy boots, cotton plaid shirts with pearl snaps, and other western accoutrement. And, much to my surprise at first, the strains of country music can oft be heard coming from their CD players. It's been great to see them embrace the local culture of their new home.

While I confess to being a hopeless urbanite, more and more I find myself enjoying the artistry of more traditional country and folk music. So, in keeping with my general appreciation for a life rich with those things that are authentic and handmade, I write this post about Hem – a musical group whose "countrypolitan" style blends traditional melodies with their own fresh, homespun sound.

The quartet, with its shining star Sally Ellyson as lead vocalist, hails from Brooklyn, NY. This threw me for a loop initially, as their songs often have a pastoral, lonesome quality that reminds me of an endless Kansas prairie. One thing I appreciate about the band is that they do not employ any technological shortcuts to achieve their sound. Apparently, band-member Dan Messé was so committed to this handmade approach that he sold off many of his possessions to finance the making of their first album—Rabbit Songs—in 2001. For most (all?) of their recordings, an entire orchestra was crammed into the studio with them.

{prairie songs}

Although I delight in each of their albums, Rabbit Songs is the one that will always hold a tender place in my heart, like a first love. The way Dan describes discovering Sally and her amazing voice sums up how I felt when I heard my first Hem song from this CD—Half Acre—during a lonely evening working on my thesis: "I couldn’t believe that voice existed... We all sort of feel like it was The Wizard of Oz. Like the exact right person showed up at the exact right time to get us home."

That’s how it was for me, too—like this music had been waiting to be born. They gave it life, bringing it to the ears of whoever wanted to listen. A few at first and now many. You can listen here.

Two more finely crafted albums—Eveningland and No Word From Tom—followed Rabbit Songs. And after much anticipation on my part, they released Funnel Cloud in 2006. I was a very happy girl having been able to hear them live at the Wonder Ballroom with Over the Rhine that year. And can I also say just how much I love their album cover art?

I’ll close with music reviewer Michael Hill’s perfectly nuanced encapsulation of the band’s authentic, timeless sound:

“Hem’s third studio album, Funnel Cloud, features songs of such carefully crafted, dream-like beauty that it’s almost impossible to place exactly where they’ve come from or even in what era they might have been recorded. You can hear a subtle country twang, the storytelling simplicity of great folk music, a touch of Tin Pan Alley sophistication. They at times recall the emotionally stirring sweep of movie music from an age when the best pictures were shot in Cinemascope and orchestras crowded onto sound stages to perform the scores. These tunes are so immediately involving, sometimes so soothingly familiar, that you’ll insist you know them - and love them - already. Hem exists very much in the here and now, but always manages to evoke the timeless.”

Thank you Hem for the beauty you bring to the world. I’m so grateful.