Hi there. This is a rewritten version of a post from last spring, one that in retrospect I was really unhappy with, that didn’t capture much of what I like about this song and the band who performed it, and instead got bogged down in a discussion about genre names. This version contains much more of what I wanted to say.
I heard quite a lot of country music as a child, on Music for Pleasure compilations my parents had on cassette. My mother was a Crystal Gayle fan too. Those two names will probably tell you what sort of country we’re talking about: orchestrated Nashville country, 1970s pop country, records that play in the space between countrypolitan and chamber pop, in the space between sophisticated and cheesy. It’s a difficult area to work in. You can come off precious, or bland, or bloodless. It takes a good song, a sensitive singer and skilled arrangers to pull it off. Even then, what sounds wonderful in a single-song dosage can sound unambitious — rote, even — if turned into a formula, the way Billy Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette in the late 1960s and 1970s. As good as those records are (and the best of them — Till I Get it Right, You and Me — are magnificent), there’s something disquieting about listening to them in sequence. It’s the sound of an artist being squeezed into a mould and losing their original form in the process.
Anyhow, this kind of music doesn’t get made in Nashville anymore. And as there were a great many country fans who didn’t much like it in the first place — thinking it too polished, too restrained, too produced, too far away from how Hank had done it — many don’t really care.
I like it, though. It pushes all kinds of buttons in me. And so I like Hem. A lot. Seeing them at the Union Chapel last year with Mel was one of the best experiences of my life.
Hem are a band from Brooklyn who play acoustic, orchestrated music that’s pretty clearly derived from the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, they seem slightly loath to admit it – Dan Messe, the group’s principal songwriter, recently said Hem are at heart a folk band, which seems odd since their first two albums (the beautiful Rabbit Songs and the even lusher Eveningland) are their most countrypolitan.
Countrypolitan, as exemplified in, say, the recordings Glen Campbell made of Jimmy Webb’s songs, is characterised by its smoothness, downplaying (but not excising) the traditional roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel and using instead full orchestra or large string section, brushed drums (not always, but the drums are never emphasised in the mix no matter how they’re played), fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and a gentler, more intimate vocal style than could ever be deployed in honky-tonk country music. That’s the kind of music Hem make, and no singer is gentler or more intimate than Sally Elyson. Unlike, Wynette or Patsy Cline, there’s no hint of vocal power held in reserve. Elyson sings gentle always, sometimes in a near whisper.
I’ve banged on plenty in the last year or so about sound quality a lot. Probably too much. It is important to me though. I spend a good amount of my waking hours thinking about it. Few people currently working make records that sound as good as Hem’s. Their records are engineered and mixed in ways that buck most of the current trends: they record to tape, they don’t use extravagant equalisation or heavy compression. They focus on space, balance and attention to detail. Messe, Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer are skilled players (as are their collaborators, such as Heather Zimmerman (Messe’s sister) and double bassist George Rush), but their playing is unshowy but empathetic. This music, and their approach to, is disciplined.
That maybe makes them sound blander than they are; their restraint in no way signifies a lack of passion. When making Rabbit Songs, Dan Messe sold his apartment and most of his things to pay to work with an orchestra because he wanted to get the album right. Eveningland drove the band to bankruptcy. The group and their collaborators (a large team of players, arrangers, engineers, assistants and mixers are credited on their records) clearly understand what a remarkable singer Elyson is, and so they give her voice the space it deserves, and they don’t stint when building the tracks that support it.
Pacific Street is the penultimate track from their 2004 album Eveningland. It’s less representative of their early sound than something like Carry Me Home (not a Gloworm cover) or Receiver from the same album, or Lazy Eye or Sailor from Rabbit Songs — it lacks the acoustic guitars, fiddle and the pedal steel that create so much of the mood of those records — but in its intimacy, its focus on the small moments in life and relationships, it’s wholly characteristic. And as ever, it’s beautifully performed and arranged, Catherine Popper (a former member of Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals, and the rather less subtle Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) doing especially great work on double bass.
Hem, current line-up (l-r Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Elyson, Dan Messe). Publicity shot, © Walden