Thursday, March 29, 2012

Something Different For The Masses, Except They're Not Listening: Eveningland By Hem!

The Good: Amazing voice, Good music, Decent lyrics
The Bad: Undefinable genre, "Jackson"
The Basics: Defying genre and making a wonderful listening experience, Hem's Eveningland succeeds as something truly different.

This is one of the few albums I have allowed myself to re-rate as I move my reviews from the old site to my own blog. Hem surprised the hell out of me and “Eveningland” was my first experience with the band. I’ve reviewed one of their EPs (here!) and the Twelfth Night Soundtrack (here!) which is not a true Hem album in my book before now. This, however, is an album I am glad to revisit at I move it. I underestimated it originally and the new number rating reflects how much it grew on me in the years since I first heard/reviewed it! Enjoy!

Sometimes, I think I get too caught up in genre. You know, defining things I see and hear by what is the easiest categorization for it. In music, that leads me toward female rockers, folk-rock and alternative pop-rock artists. It makes me flee far away from country or most rap. The categories I don't like are based on what I simply don't like, not because they are labeled by that category. When I first learned of Hem, I met something of a crisis of faith in this department. Allow me to explain:

Hem's music on Eveningland - which I mistakenly listened to thinking it was their first album - is an almost undefinable genre right smack dab on the border between folk, light pop, and country. It does not easily fit into any of the three categories, but it does have elements of all three. Songs like "The Beautiful Sea" tell a story like folk, songs like "Pacific Street" embody the pop ballad perfectly, and songs like "Jackson" are twangy country. And one of the two ways I decided I liked Eveningland and Hem was by understanding that the country sound that Hem creates occasionally is Old Style country. You know, pre-Achy Breaky Heart crossover crap. More classic Johnny Cash style. From when Country was good.

The other way I convinced myself of the album's worth was by listening to it. A lot. It was about ten plays before I decided I liked it.

So why, if it's such a tough sell, am I ultimately recommending it?

From the first listen, Eveningland was different from most anything I ever heard. The opening chords of "The Fire Thief" draw the listener in and deposit them under the control of quite simply the most beautiful soprano voice recording today. Understand, I'm a huge fan of Fiona Apple's music, but the voice of Sally Ellyson puts Apple's to, well, not shame, but it certainly outdoes the best moment's of "Never Is A Promise." Ellyson's fabulous voice takes the simple words and music behind "Carry Me Home" and transforms it into the saddest song I have ever heard. Ellyson's voice evokes images beyond the words that puts "Carry Me Home" into tear-jerker territory. Never in my life did I think Elton John's "The Last Song" would even have a run for its money, but "Carry Me Home" outdoes it for saddest song status. And I've got to say, there's something pretty extraordinary about a song you can put on continual repeat and keep the emotional resonance of it going.

I attribute much to Ellyson's voice and it's credit where credit is due. Her voice on "Strays" transforms a gospel song into folk storytelling. Okay, even if it doesn't, her voice is inspiring, which is what the song needs in order to sell itself. "Strays" tells the story of a narrator who was unfaithful in her engagement, finds solace in church and works to keep others from straying the way she did. It's not a lecture, it's not even a lesson, it's presented as one woman's lonely, then redemptive, experience. And it works. Beautifully. Ellyson's voice makes us forget our trepidations over genres.

It's also the skillful lyrics of Daniel Meese that make the album worth the buy. Songs like "The Beautiful Sea" and "Carry Me Home" illustrate a profound sense of poetry and a real talent for putting words to music. It's almost enough to excuse the predicable rhyme scheme and schmaltzy emotions of early tracks "Lucky" and "Receiver." Eveningland is a pretty solid collection of mellow songs usually conveying some sadness. But it works.

But it isn't for those who are not open-minded, who are stuck on genre. Despite the country sound to "Dance With Me," it seems more pop than country, despite the gospel lyrics to "Strays," it's certainly more folk, and despite the use of instruments like the violin, this is a very contemporary, hip album. But it might need some time to work its magic.

And despite my constant mentions that this took time to grow on me, from the first listen, I was blown away by the last four tracks. Even from the first listen, the last four tracks, "The Beautiful Sea," “Eveningland,” "Pacific Street" and "Carry Me Home" were impressive and compelled me to listen to them again.

On a somewhat outside note, Eveningland - the album - is pretty ballsy in that the title track is an instrumental piece less than two minutes long. I think that's cool. Sadly, both “Eveningland” and "Cincinnati Traveler" are unfinished tracks, which are not compiled in their entirety until No Word From Tom, the album that follows.

In final analysis, this is a pretty wonderful album, mellow and flowing, emotive and sweeping. It combines fabulous vocals with a full orchestra sound not found anywhere else in music today. It's worth the listen and it's one I am keeping in my collection.

The best track is "Carry Me Home," with "The Beautiful Sea" a close second, "Jackson" which is too Country for me bottoms out the album.

For other albums by women with amazing voices, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Cry Cry Cry - Cry Cry Cry
When The Pawn . . . - Fiona Apple
Feels Like Home - Norah Jones


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums, singles, and boxed sets I have reviewed organized by artist and then chronologically.

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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