In our FORGOTTEN ARTISTS series this week. regular contributor Tim Martin returns with a piece about a fascinating band that bring a wide range range of musical influences to create a very singular sound…
I first came across Hem on a bootleg as a support act for Over The Rhine, around the time of their ‘Rabbit Songs’ album. That they could divert my attention from my favourite band says all you need to know about the quality of their music.
‘Rabbit Songs’ joined my CD collection and remains a regular play nearly 20 years later. I’ve seen the description “languorous folk music” used about Hem’s music and that reflects the sense of stillness in much of their music. Apparently Sally Ellyson answered an ad by saying that she was “not really a singer”. When songwriter Dan Messé heard her demo tape of lullabies he found that she was in fact very definitely a singer. They went on to open their first album with ‘Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please’ and there is a lullaby quality to much of Ellyson’s singing. In common with Cowboy Junkies, Hem often supplement their basic line up with extra musicians, with some lush string arrangements complementing their songs.
While ‘Rabbit Songs’ is good, they really hit their stride with ‘Eveningland’. If I was reviewing it today it would get very close to a 10 out of 10 album. There isn’t a song not out of the top drawer. The strings of ‘Receiver’ and pedal steel on ‘Lucky’ are standouts in a record full of highlights. Issues with label DreamWorks delayed it’s release and, perhaps, lost Hem some momentum, but when ‘Eveningland’ finally appeared on Rounder Records in 2004 it built on the critical acclaim of ‘Rabbit Songs’ There was another label switch to Nettwerk for 2006’s ‘No Word from Tom’. The standout here is a cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’. The album was a mix of covers, live songs, and new original recordings and, as such, is not as coherent an album as its predecessors. Fourth album ‘Funnel Cloud’ went back to mostly original songs from Dan Messé with contributions from guitarists Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis. Far more orchestral than previous work it still retained that stillness at its core. Ellyson’s singing sounded more confident than earlier albums here, particularly on songs like ‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’. In 2009 hem recorded an album of mostly instrumental music for the production of ‘Twelfth Night’ for the Shakespeare in the Park festival in New York’s Central Park.
Their final album was 2013’s ‘Departure and Farewell’. An album that took 5 years to make, it’s not clear if it was intended as an ending, instrumentally it is a simpler album than ‘Funnel Cloud’ but the songwriting, singing and playing are still up to the high bar they set for themselves throughout their career. ‘Tourniquet’ is the standout song, although, as with all their albums, ‘Departure and Farewell’ is best listened to as a whole.
Throughout their career Hem also released EPs made up mostly of songs that didn’t appear on albums and there are some great covers including Elvis Costello’s ‘(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’ and Randy Newman’s ‘Living Without You’ both from their first release ‘I’m Talking with My Mouth’ I can see why Over the Rhine wanted to work with them, as the latter band’s “quiet music to be played loud” thing applies equally to Hem. That they could maintain such a high level of quality over 15 years, 6 albums and 7 EPs is remarkable. Since 2015 Gary Maurer and Dan Messé have been involved in the Broadway musical of ‘Amélie‘. There doesn’t seem to have been a formal breakup and their Facebook is intermittently active so the hope remains that one day more music will appear.
Lots of information about the band is at the All About Hem website