What do you make of the fact that excerpts from some of the songs on Hem’s new album Departure and Farewell first appeared in tv ads? On one hand, for an artist with any cred at all to debut new material in commercials usually amounts to career suicide – John Mellencamp could tell you something about that. On the other, it’s tempting to give Hem a pass. If there’s any band that deserves a little trickle-down money so they can afford the big-studio production that their lushly orchestrated, sweepingly melancholic songs require, Hem fits the bill. Yet from an artistic standpoint, would you want your audience to associate your music with, say, a credit card company whose ad they (or their lazy flatmates, or siblings, or parents) forgot to mute? As a listener, would you want to hear a song that reminds you of a commercial? Obviously not. Those are just a couple of the dilemmas faced by artists these days. Robert Johnson had to go down to the crossroads to make his deal; 75 years later, Hem simply handed over the files and took the cash.
Whatever you think of that transaction, there’s no denying how beautiful the new album is. Seriously: do you know anyone who doesn’t like Hem? Sally Ellyson’s sad, poignant vocals and the band’s slow, Indian summer ballads have won them a rabid following that acts who play such quiet, often delicate music seldom achieve. They’re playing Bowery Ballroom on May 4 at 9; general admission tix are $20 and still available as of this writing.
The theme of the album is endings, no great suprise considering the band’s previous output, a topic to which they’re especially well suited. Several of these tracks are available as free downloads (and for more delicious live stuff, check out the Hem channel at archive.org including their show earlier this month at the Bell House).
The opening, title cut sets Dan Messe’s terse piano against stately harp and bassoon, building to one of the band’s signature swells. The first of the free downloads, Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing is an ominously blithe oldtimey waltz at its roots. “They are there inside, though we can’t see them,” Ellyson intones nonchalantly. Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard is short and hypnotic, playing off a catchy, fingerpicked Steve Curtis riff.
The Seed has an oldtime country gospel feel lit up by Heather Zimmerman’s rustic violin. Bob Hoffnar’s blue-sky pedal steel washes through The Jack Pine. “My blood runs into the Gowanus Canal where it sinks to the bottom , it hurts like hell,” Ellyson laments in Tourniquet (another free download), a tale of Civil War era Brooklyn.
Seven Angels spices an oldtimey waltz with gospel piano and lively, twangy Gary Maurer guitar. Gently Down the Stream builds a pretty majestic rolling-on-a-river sweep, while Bird Song (an original, not a Dead cover) works a gentle 60s folk-pop vein.
Traveler’s Song – still available on a No Depression free sampler (via Limewire) – is over in less than two minutes, a rewrite of an old Irish ballad. The Tides at the Narrows builds to an unexpected majesty out of a spiky bluegrass-tinged tune on the wings of Maurer’s dobro. Last Call, with its sly Buffalo Springfield reference and a dreamy Ellyson vocal, is the album’s longest song; it winds up with the surprisingly upbeat, somewhat honkytonk-flavored So Long. Call this chamber pop, art-rock or even country music – it’s all three and it’s uniquely and instantly recognizable as Hem. May they thrive long past the point of needing corporate cash to pay for studio time.