New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: hem band

Hem Plays a Show to Get Lost In at Bowery Ballroom

Chauvinistic as this is to say, Hem always seem to play their best shows in New York. As frontwoman Sally Ellyson was quick to acknowledge Saturday night at Bowery Ballroom, it didn’t hurt that they had a full eight-piece contingent onstage including drummer Mark Brotter, pedal steel wizard Bob Hoffnar and violinist Heather Zimmerman along with keyboardist Dan Messe, guitarist/mandolinists Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer, bassist George Rush and guest Dawn Landes on backing vocals, glockenspiel and percussion. Midway through their current tour, they seemed happy (well, as happy as this band gets) to be back on their home turf and rewarded a hushed, adoring crowd with an almost thirty-song set that went on well past the two-hour mark.

Enchanting as Ellyson’s voice is on the band’s new album Departure & Farewell, she reminded that she’s even better live, transcending some hiccups in the Bowery’s usually reliable PA system during the first three songs. She sent a shout out to her Brooklyn homwtown with a poignant version of Tourniquet, Hoffnar lighting up Hotel Fire with a simmering steel solo as he would do on most of the other more country-flavored material. Reservoir built vividly to a soaring, harmony-drenched chorus out of Curtis’ nimble fingerpicking. Ellyson led the band into a plaintive, longing turnaround, reinventing Johnny Cash’s Jackson as early 60s noir.

Zimmerman’s edgy lines were a welcome presence, especially on bittersweet takes of The Seed and Strays, while Curtis fired off one of the night’s best solos on acoustic guitar on the “self-deprecatory love song” Stupid Mouth Shut. Ellyson and Messe teamed up for rapt, gorgeous duo versions of Traveler’s Song and Almost Home, while the whole band ramped up an epic art-rock intensity on the new album’s lush title track as well as the last of the encores, So Long. The night’s most intense moments came midway through, “the death segment,” as Ellyson called it: a brooding take of My Father’s Waltz, anonchalantly chilling version of Walking Past the Graveyard and then the murder ballad Carry Me Home, rooted in Messe’s gospel-infused piano. The high point of the night, appropriately enough, was Not California, its narrator ill at ease with the wave of clueless second-wave gentrifiers hot on her tail, foreshadowing total annihilation. The band also debuted We’ll Meet Along the Way, a new number – “our death metal song,” as Ellyson termed it – with the night’s most brooding, overtly menacing melody. Hem return to the road on June 1 at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts before heading further south. Keep up with Hem’s channel to see if any enterprising soul had the presence of mind to record the show: if so, it’s a keeper.

An Excellent New Album and a Bowery Ballroom Show by Hem

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 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.

A Hidden Treasure by Little Silver

Little Silver put out their debut album The Stolen Souvenir before this blog existed. But that’s no reason to ignore this quietly brilliant piece of darkly psychedelic folk-rock from Brooklyn, from the summer of 2010. Erika Simonian and Hem’s Steve Curtis weave a darkly hypnotic web of guitars with occasional extra texture from banjo and piano, and join voices for an apprehensive, gorgeously nocturnal feel.

The title track is slow and sparse, kind of a big sky theme, banjo mingling tersely with the acoustic and electric guitars and some sweet vocal harmonies. Food from the Cow is done as a nocturne, sparse, haunting electric guitars intertwining and growing more crepuscular, Simonian’s vocals more lush than on her own recording of this song (from her classic 2004 album All the Plastic Animals), emphasizing the lyrics’ bitter resignation. They do Leadbelly’s Irene, Goodnight as a sad farewell, adding layers of guitar until it practically collapses with heartbreak: it’s as poignant as it is hypnotic and psychedelic. The last track, Sleep Til Morning reminds of Hem, a lingering, slow, warily atmospheric folk ballad with echoey electric piano that’s the closest thing here to contentment – although it never becomes more than an approximation. “You draw the dreamland right into the day/I watch my waking thoughts, I watch my way,” the two intone as the piano ends it with an austere elegance.

They’ve also got an album of covers titled Dress Up which came out earlier this year, with similarly pensive, more country-flavored versions of songs by Chris Whitley, the Cure, Hem, Sun Kil Moon and the Speedies. Both albums are streaming at Little Silver’s Bandcamp site.

Intriguing Vintage Sounds from Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes

Pianist/chanteuse Mary Lorson has a new album, Burn Baby Burn, with her band the Soubrettes. It’s an unassumingly charming, deceptively upbeat, pensively lyrical blend of oldtime-flavored Americana, sultry torch songs and jaunty purist pop. Lorson first rose to prominence back in the 90s as the frontwoman of Madder Rose, whose raw, moody blend of trip-hop and downtempo with rock instrumentation made them a cooler alternative to bands like Tortoise. She was a decent singer in that band, and later in Saint Low; she’s an extraordinary one now. Her voice is clear, unadorned, usually gentle and matter-of-fact, a quietly powerful vehicle for her allusively brooding songs, which reveal themselves slowly, with repeated listening: don’t go into this expecting to be able to make sense of it the first time through. On this album Lorson plays piano and guitar alongside banjoist/guitarist Leah Houghtaling and bassist Amelia Sauter, with contributions from Michael Stark on piano, Joe Novelli on lapsteel and AJ Strauss on horn on a couple of tracks.

The opening track, Busboy, sets the stage for what’s to come, Stark’s hypnotically pointillistic piano mingling with the banjo for a bell-like backdrop that mutes the grimly surreal, apocalyptic lyrics, delivered by Lorson with a deadpan coyness. That contrast between starry melody and bitter resignation recurs a little later on with Only One Number Two and its offhand Satie allusions. The album’s second track, Mancub, puts an oldtimey spin on an indie rock tune, with a blithe “bump bump badump bump” chorus over Kathy Ziegler’s swirling organ and a lyric about a guy who may not realize just how bizarre his life was on his way up. The lush, soul-infused ballad Lately wouldn’t be out of place in the Aimee Mann songbook; Houghtaling does a memorable job mimicking a violin’s pizzicato with her muted touch on the banjo.

The rustic, swirly nocturne River, with its lush blend of acoustic guitar, banjo, bass and organ downplays Lorson’s downcast vibe, while the catchy, matter-of-fact pop tune Bubble of Pretend evokes Greta Gertler in an especially theatrical moment. The hypnotic title track, its resonant lapsteel contrasting with boomy bass, creates a bucolically atmospheric milieu that reminds of Hem. By contrast, the upbeat country song Crystal Ball nicks a Jenifer Jackson lick: “Are you looking at me, I’m the only one in here,” Lorson asks enigmatically.

These Police, a ballad contrasting upper-register piano with Lorson’s finely nuanced, torchily wounded vocals, looks at the consequences of exhausting yourself to please others who probably couldn’t care less. The inscrutably seductive, pulsing, cabaret-flavored Let ‘Em Eat Little Debbie Cakes asserts that “Marie Antoinette never made that crack about the poor and their petits fours for breakfast.” The album winds up with its only cover song, I Don’t Care, brassy tune punctuated by big ghostly flurries of guitar, brass and backing vocals. This was the signature song for Eva Tanguay, proto-flapper feminist, vaudeville star and contemporary of Sophie Tucker and Mae West. But rather than channeling the lyrics’ impunity, Lorson delivers it wistfully, as if she really does care and has taken a beating for that. It’s an apt way to close this thoughtful and thought-provoking album.