Sound/Style: Delicate, if static, folk-pop influenced by early American music
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—Hem, founded by New York entertainment industry pros burned out on rock’s irony, offered one of 2003’s biggest left-field surprises with their debut, Rabbit Songs. The unknown band (interestingly, fronted by a musical hobbyist who’d never sung professionally) was signed by the now-defunct Dreamworks label, but the buzz they’d generated with their pastoral throwback to turn-of-the-century American song (20th century, that is) got them snapped up by Rounder Records in time for their anticipated follow-up.
As yet unheard by many, they deserve time to stabilize and a chance for their novel sound to be evaluated outside the small pond of critics and converts familiar with their modest repertoire. Still, it seems that such an evaluation might well be more favorable based on the sum of their work to date rather than strictly upon their artfully crafted, yet somewhat hollow, Eveningland.
Whereas Rabbit Songs was a gentle, yet musically eventful side trip through rolling hills and backwoods, Eveningland is an excursion along a relatively level pathway with pretty, but unspectacular scenery. The disc’s melodies are pleasant, but not especially memorable. That may be due to Hem’s ultra-careful attention to musical setting, an approach akin to building a fabulously detailed miniature village around an electric train track in need of maintenance.
The comfortable and uncluttered design so prevalent on their debut disc has gone slightly awry here, with fragile, house-of-cards balancing acts being attempted between multiple guitars, mandolins, violin, steel guitar, glockenspiel and so on. Not to mention the Slovak National Radio Orchestra, painstakingly overdubbed in faraway Bratislava. It’s not that these balances are faulty; in fact, they are so finely wrought that there is little in these songs that distinguishes itself to the casual ear.
The finished product seems as much experiment as expression, propelled by Hem’s desire to devise an antidote to today’s attitude-heavy rock and derivative pop. On this count, they succeed, though at the expense of deeply centered authenticity and a clearly stated, meaningful perspective. Residing in a not-quite-real, yet not-fully-surreal netherworld somewhere between early ’70s-era Randy Newman and Stephen Foster’s parlor songs, Hem dispense with Newman’s wry cynicism but also lack – on this collection, at least – Foster’s common-man congeniality and sweet, romantic bent.
Their dry and humorless take on Johnny Cash and June Carter’s "Jackson" is questionable, trading the original version’s playful "I dare you to leave me" banter for a weary ambivalence. Seemingly, the characters in this recording lack commitment but don’t have the energy or conviction to do more than limply talk about it.
The subject matter of Hem’s original work is dominated by unresolved and disconnected ideas, sometimes even within a single song. When the lyrics do produce a palpable feeling, it’s often an unsettling one, as on the tragic "Carry Me Home" or "Strays," a song of betrayal and possible, though uncertain, repentance. "Pacific Street," beneath its sketchy theme of transience, hints at tenuous modern relationships borne of comfort and convenience: "I don’t know you except for the way a traveler knows a traveler/the way a station can tempt you to stay and spend some time inside it."
In the same manner, Hem’s invitingly warm textures and expertly manipulated atmospheres can indeed entice one to spend some time ensconced in Eveningland. Once down the road apiece, though, it may occur that you won’t necessarily retain a lifelong memory of your visit there.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.