Tuesday, January 30, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1098: Hem

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! Did you take a break and watch the Grammys? If so…my condolences. I didn’t watch because for the most part I don't like the music that gets nominated. However, here are some of the very few highlights for me – none of which I saw live:
  • I was pleased to see Aimee Mann get a Grammy for “Mental Illness”.
  • The greatest album of last year, Jason Isbell’s “The Nashville Sound” won not one, but two Grammys. That felt good.
  • Also great that Leonard Cohen who won a Grammy for “You Want it Darker” in the…rock category? Are these Grammy voters hearing the same records I’m hearing?
On the performance front I was lucky enough to see inspired performances by both Kesha and Lady Gaga. I expect Gaga to blow me away live and she didn’t disappoint, but Kesha was a nice surprise. I hope to see more from both of them down the road.

Disc 1098 is… Rabbit Songs
Artist: Hem

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a rabbit! Not just a rabbit either, because with the space they saved by putting the song listing on the front of the jacket they were able to expand that rabbit into…
Two rabbits! Don’t be surprised by this. Reproducing is the thing rabbits are best known for.

How I Came To Know It: This was record 94 on Paste Magazine’s “100 Best Indie Folk Albums of All Time.” I did a full tour of that list last year, buying the albums that tickled my fancy. I got lucky with this one. Maybe it was the rabbit’s foot on the cover.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one Hem album so it can’t really stack up. They have six out there and I checked out the other ones but none of them appealed to me like “Rabbit Songs”.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Rabbit Songs” has the whimsy and heart-worn wisdom of a fairy tale and just enough darkness around the edges that you think it likely it was written by the Brothers Grimm.

Hem walks a fine line between folk and contemporary pop, but it is anchored by the solid songwriting of piano player Dan Messe. Messe clearly understands standard folk progressions and can employ them in the timeless way they are intended, or put subtle twists on their melodic resolution with equal skill. Not knowing what kind of song you are going to get keeps your ear interested. That curiosity lasts into multiple listens, which is the hallmark of a good album.

The other anchor is the soft and sweet yet powerful vocals of Sally Ellyson. Ellyson has a voice that can alternate so subtly between poignant and atmospheric you don’t notice the shift. Instead you’re left with a lot of confused and complicated emotions. That’s OK though, because emotions are supposed to be complicated.

Together the blend of traditional and modern, both in the writing and the delivery, has Hem hanging somewhere between the Wailin’ Jennys and Sarah McLachlan. It isn’t a tense balance so much as a pendulum that swings lazily back and forth between styles, hypnotizing you until you realize it is all just one thing.

My favourite song on the album is “When I Was Drinking,” a song that is part breakup song, part celebration of youth and part AA confessional. When Ellyson sings:

“When I was drinking
When I was with you
Living it up when the rent was due
With nothing and no one to live up to”

She takes you right back to every wild and reckless youthful moment you lived, and maybe a few you wished you’d enjoyed better in the moment. Except you couldn’t, because you were broke. As Hem reminds us, youth isn’t all gold and roses.

Betting on Trains” showcases Hem’s ability to combine traditional Americana forms and guitar picking with a lounge-style vocal that fills an old-fashioned road song with the hum of the modern world.

Songs like “All That I’m Good For” stray a bit too far into smooth lounge jazz for my liking, ironically losing a bit of the mood by working too hard to evoke it. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between.

Mostly, this record feels relaxed, unfolding at a slow and even pace even, slipping in more than a little wistful regret. Yet you feel happy to have those regrets. Like I said earlier, it’s complicated.

While this album is a tasteful 45 minutes long it is a distasteful 16 tracks, and I think if three or four more had been shaved off the record would be even better.

However, this is more than made up for by a great CD booklet. I give this album’s booklet an A+. Glued into the inside cover, it opens like a book. Inside are the lyrics of every song, neatly typed, along with the songwriter and any additional musicians that performed on it. “Rabbit Songs” features a small army of guest musicians who are a big part of the magic. Thank you for those subtle flourishes of pedal steel on “Stupid Mouth Shut”, Bob Hoffnar. Thank you for that haunting cello in the background of “Sailor”, Hannah Emlen. I appreciated them!

Near the end of the record Hem throws in a traditional number with “Cuckoo” and show that if they just wanted to do a whole record of straight up folk or bluegrass they could. Instead they add a lot of touches to the form, some swelling salient into the melody, others happy to just be a well-placed string or horn section adding subtle brush strokes in the background. It all works.

Best tracks: When I Was Drinking, Half Acre, Betting on Trains, Idle (The Rabbit Song), Stupid Mouth Shut, Night Like a River

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