Hem Eveningland

[Rounder; 2004]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: folk, americana, singer/songwriter, alt. country-rock
Others: Iron and Wine, Patty Griffin, Nick Drake, Mazzy Star, Belle & Sebastian

The indie-rock world is full of irony and lip-biting quirk, often a cross between a Wes Anderson film and a Todd Solondz film. That's why someone unfamiliar with Hem might look at their 2002 debut Rabbit Songs and laugh knowingly at titles like "Horsey" and "Idle (The Rabbit Song)." Hem is about as far away from irony and quirk as possible, however. Instead of giving in to any cultural pressure that goes along with making indie music, songwriters Dan Messé, Gary Maurer, and Steve Curtis create one to five minute musical epics with lush orchestral arrangements. And they're about as serious as they could be, horsies and all.

Eveningland is an intensely beautiful follow up to Rabbit Songs, every track coming out stronger and more ornate. The band's principal instruments, piano, guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, violin -- and of course Sally Ellyson's light-as-air bedtime vocals -- are backed by the Slovak National Radio Orchestra on several tracks. The result is thickly layered, sophisticated folk music, traditional in structure but singular in beauty. Every instrumentalist in the band plays his/her part so smoothly that the songs often don't sound as complex as they are: a telling characteristic of true virtuoso.

Even at its coldest lyrically, Eveningland is a warming record. Ellyson's vocals are greatly responsible for this; she crafts the aura of her narratives with the tone of her voice, always gentle. Sensual when prompting a lover to "Take [her] home in a big car --drive it slow" in "Dance with Me, Now Darling," and wistful when recounting "We got married in a fever" in "Jackson," the narrator subtly engages the listener. Even the album's lyrically cryptic closer, "Carry Me Home," is profoundly affective, Ellyson's vocals haunting and comforting at the same time, above a wash of pedal steel and textured strings.

There is absolutely nothing bad to say about this record. It is stunning: a fine example of Americana from one of the most talented up-and-coming bands in the US.

1. The Fire Thief
2. Lucky
3. Receiver
4. Redwing
5. My Father's Waltz
6. Hollow
7. A-Hunting We Will Go
8. An Easy One
9. Strays
10. Cincinnati Traveler
11. Jackson
12. Dance with Me, Now Darling
13. The Beautiful Sea
14. Eveningland
15. Pacific Street
16. Carry Me Home

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