Traveler’s Song – Hem

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. But not only does their music move me more than that of probably any other contemporary record makers, its interesting to analyse on a formal level simply because of how it resists so many of the most pervasive modern writing and production tropes you find in pop, indie and mainstream rock music. So if you’ll permit me an indulgence, here’s another post on Hem. Go on, it’s my birthday on Tuesday; let me have this.

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly. On the whole, they’re more a country band than anything else, particularly on their two most well-known records (Rabbit Songs and Eveningland), but on Departure and Farewell they go back further into the history of American music, through early New Orleans jazz back to the songs of Stephen Foster, to a time before recorded music, a time of parlour songs on upright pianos. But whatever the musical form they work with on a song-to-song basis, what underpins their work is the group’s empathetic playing, the beautiful, clear-as-a-bell voice of Sally Elyson and the songwriting of Dan Messe.

Messe’s gift is for creating melodies that sound like they must always have existed. His tunes are simple and unshowy. They’re rhythmically orthodox and regular, with notes falling plainly on the strong beats. They’re built on simple chord changes of Cs and Gs and Ds and E minors. His lyrics, likewise, don’t aim to impress with wordplay and clever rhyme. Yet the emotional world he builds out of such stark materials is vast. He’s living proof of the maxim that it’s far easier to do complicated than it is to do the simple well.

There’s always been a little undertow of jazz in Hem’s sound, but the brass band/New Orleans thing really crept in on Departure and Farewell, to the point where Traveler’s Song sounds to the modern rock fan’s ear like nothing so much as mid-1970s Tom Waits. At the end of the intro, I always half expect Waits to begin growling “Well, I wish I was in New Orleans” (and am usually somewhat relieved that he doesn’t, which is strange given that I’d count Small Change among my very favourite albums). But Traveler’s Song and I Wish I Was in New Orleans definitely live in the same universe. And Waits would be proud to have written this.

A few months ago, I wrote a brief post on Professor Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment: Display of Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s. In the hugely insightful introduction, Morris outlines his concept of the “modest song”. Discussing the differences between symphonic music, opera, art song and the other kinds of “high” music of the European classical tradition on the one hand and pop song on the other, he uses the term “modest songs” as a blanket term for the pop songs of the recorded-music era and the folk and parlour songs of the 19th century and earlier. It’s a term he uses in a purely descriptive way, not as a value judgement:

We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitment as music scholars has been the strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day… The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse – they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.

Hem exemplify Mitchell Morris’s concept of the “modest song”. Traveler’s Song is far more effective in its brevity – it can be listened to in precisely two minutes – than it would be if stretched out over several verses. As it is, it functions like that piercing insight you sometimes have, the one that comes to you as if from nowhere, clears your head, cuts through the fog and tells you, This is it. This is how you really feel.

Could any statement carry as much charge or cut deeper than “I miss my home and my family”? Certainly not in popular music, where the barest and potentially most powerful statement of all – I love you – has lost some of that power through sheer repetition. There’s no wailing, no emoting, the arrangement doesn’t go for the tearducts, but it gets to them anyway. It’s something they’ve managed again and again over the last 12 years.

Hem Walden

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