The Good: Good voices, Good lyrics, Interesting
The Bad: Some music not what I like, Homogenous themes for Hem, Short
The Basics: With well-written lyrics and great voice, Hem and Autumn Defense squeeze out an EP just worth trying out.
First off, I hate EPs. I loathe them. If an artist is prolific enough to produce an album, they should. EPs for compact discs are a waste of material; wait until you have enough songs for a full album, as opposed to rushing out an EP. Second, I had never heard any music by either Hem or Autumn Defense before I purchased Birds, Beasts, & Flowers, the EP that features three tracks from each group. That's not entirely true, I heard clips of some of Hem's music while at Barnes and Noble and I decided - when I could afford it - that I'd give them a shot. My only experience with Autumn Defense is this disc.
In this case, the album inspired more questions than it answered for me, because I purchased it based on liking the clips I had heard of Hem. I still didn't know what type of music Hem makes. I still don't. And Autumn Defense? Who knows?! What would you call the genre of music being made if Simon and Garfunkel were still making music today? It couldn't be an oldie then!
So, it seems germane, because there are only six tracks, to mention each one and then make a conclusion about the album as a whole.
Hem opens Birds, Beasts, & Flowers with "Half Acre," an inarguably folksy song about buying land and moving on. This is a piece that uses violins, a dulcimer (by the sound of it) and strong tympanies. There's not much like it; it's quite orchestral and grand in the music, sad and intimate in the lyrics. It asks the question, quite longingly, "Do you carry every sadness with you?" It makes one who is in pain want to pick up and move elsewhere to just try to literally get away from the pain. Fortunately, Dan Messe, who wrote all of Hem's lyrics on this disc, does not answer that question for us.
This song is sad and lonely, grand and haunting and Hem's lead singer has one of the most beautiful sopranos out there, making it a pleasant song to listen to. It does, however, begin the conundrum of the album; if the piece is called Birds, Beasts, & Flowers, why are all of Hem's songs on the album about places?
Autumn Defense takes the second track with "Bluebirds Fall," a dreamy, organ accompanied piece of light rock that could have come from the hidden vault of Simon and Garfunkel. It's a song that attempts - and largely succeeds - at being dreamlike and ponderous. The only drawback is the melodic refrain is repeated for quite a long while after the lyrics end. I mean, the coda here is half the length of the song. It works for the concept, but fails as a repeated listening experience.
Hem's "Pacific Street" is the third song and hearing it is enough to make one cry. The lead singer's voice is sad and lonesome, noting that it is probably time to leave, but that letting go is just something she cannot do. The simple repetition of "Leaving things is just too hard for me" is almost enough to make one break. Or sit and listen to it on repeat and then drive off into the night with the thought, "It's hard for her, but I can do it." This is what will probably push me over the razor's edge to recommend this EP.
Autumn Defense balances out the melancholy of Hem's "Pacific Street" with "You Know Where I Live," a pop tune that just works.
Hem's last track on the disc is "St. Charlene" and I have to say, I'm not wild about the music. The music is flat out country. I swear the soprano drawls more when she opens with "Traded my last favor for a map of St. Charlene." The kicker is, while the sound of the song is country, the lyrics are quite good. "St. Charlene" tells the story of going back to the place where the narrator used to live with one she loved. And there is nothing left of Them there. And she's able to move on. I won't comment on that.
The album ends with "Mayday," an Autumn Defense instrumental piece. Others would describe it as elevator music. I think I'd ride an elevator to hear this as opposed to the elevator music version of Outkast's "I Like the Way You Move" or David Bowie's "Changes."
This leaves us with a razor decision. I wish I wanted to wait until I heard one of Hem's full-length albums before reviewing this, but I think this is a more organic view of reviewing. Far too often after my reviews, someone comments on "Well, the lead singer was going through X at the time" or "In order to get this part of the movie, you have to know that director Y had just Z." That's a foolish way to rate things. The piece should stand on its own. I refer to Hem's lead singer as "the soprano" because she's a soprano and the packaging to this disc does not tell me her name. I don't need the history of the band or its future, this is a rating on what THIS piece is.
Birds, Beasts, & Flowers is a tease. It's a sampler to try to entice us into buying the next Hem or Autumn Defense album. Hem succeeded, but not on the merits of this album; I purchased Eveningland, their sophomore album, at the same time. Autumn Defense will not be taking up any more shelf space of mine, though I did enjoy "Bluebirds Fall" quite a bit and I find myself humming "You Know Where I Live" quite a bit. Hem's work would make me cautiously buy her album if I were to it again. Why? All three songs are well written, all three songs have a powerful voice that I am enjoying, two of the songs are in a style or format I find pleasing to the ear and my tastes. The other, not so much.
So, at the end of the day, I will recommend this EP, if for no other reason than one ought to support artists and it is clear these two groups are. Hem is quite powerful in lyrics and voice and their sound has range from intimate to grand. Autumn Defense is enjoyable and at the very least pleasant in sound. "Bluebirds Fall" is hypnotic and "Pacific Street" is so perfectly sad, "Mayday" and "St. Charlene" could be improved.
For other, similar, works, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Twelfth Night Soundtrack – Hem
Foiled - Blue October
Tear The World Down - We Are The Fallen
For other music reviews, please visit my music index page by clicking here!
© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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