Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Is Hem A Herald Of The Hegemony? Rabbit Songs

The Good: Phenomenal vocals, Generally good lyrics, Diverse Instrumentals
The Bad: Strong traditional voice, Generally a slow album
The Basics: With fabulous vocals, it's hard to wonder why Hem sings such depressing songs; at least on Rabbit Songs they do it well.

Hem is a group I have only recently gotten into and the reason it has taken me so long to write reviews of their albums is that their music is so very different from anything else in my collection. I abhor Country and Western music, not because it's Country, but because I'm not into the sound of twangy guitars and voices combined with predictable, silly lyrics. Any music I listen to that makes me envision a hoe-down is pretty much trashed by me. Hem's music is much more classical, more mountain music country than what is familiar Country and Western. Still, some of the tracks are so close to Country that I needed to be sure I was giving the album and group a fair shake.

Hem's debut album Rabbit Songs is a sullen debut, no hoe-downs here. No, the majority of the songs have a sweet sadness to them and the overwhelming emotion expressed is sadness. It's a general ennui with life that Rabbit Songs portrays. From the opening haunting vocals of "Lord, Blow Out The Moon Please" (enough said by the title) to the sense of loss in "Betting On Trains" to the desolate emptiness of "Night Like A River," this is a slow album with much sadness conveyed.

Even the moments that seem to sing of love, are wrenched away from the listener. I suppose one should suspect that a song entitled "Leave Me Here" is not going to be cheery. But when it opens with lines like "I should wake up this town - my heart's on fire" the listener gets suckered in. But, it turns quickly into "I could tell by his face - those two tired eyes / It's been a long night searching for grace, now the sun won't rise." It's another sad song.

Even the up-tempo songs aren't terribly happy. "Stupid Mouth Shut" has the up-tempo song that makes one contemplate romantic country nights, but the song is all about unrequited love and not speaking up with one's feelings.

Damn, this is a depressing album. Even for me.

Maybe that's why I like it, it's mellow. No, actually it's just depressing. This is an album to listen to when you're sad and don't want to get out of being sad. Period.

Part of what makes the album so powerful and effective is the vocal performance of Sally Ellyson, the band's lead singer. She has a powerful, full voice with great range. Her altos are sharp, her sopranos are amazing. Her haunting voice makes "Sailor" the perfect expression of longing, of reaching to obtain. Her lilt on "Betting On Trains" makes the lyrically sad song fun and interesting to listen to.

One of the things that is most impressive about Hem on Rabbit Songs is the diversity of instruments. While the album may be thematically monolithic and the tempo is almost universally slow, the instrumentation is quite diverse. Unlike the typical album these days, with some combination of guitar, piano, bass and drums, Hem is backed by a very full orchestra. Their sound defies genre simply by creating music. While the standards on any given track include Sally Ellyson's voice, guitars, mandolins, piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, drums, bass, and/or violin, individual tracks have even more. There is a pedal steel on several tracks, and "Halfacre" has an additional viola, cello and clarinet. How many contemporary albums use a flute and oboe? Hem does!

And that makes Rabbit Songs hard to define by genre. "Betting on Trains" is a pretty universal ballad, "Stupid Mouth Shut" is almost straight country, and "When I Was Drinking" is pretty direct folk-rock. And while on the subject, Rabbit Songs is a remarkably wholesome album. The second song is about getting sober and leaving a bad influence. There's nothing thematically edgy here. I suppose there's nothing terribly edgy about moody and sad, loss and longing.

So, in final analysis, if you want an album to be depressed by, with fabulous vocals and good musical sound that defies genre, Rabbit Songs is for you. The lyrics are generally good; the songs written by Dan Meese are generally strong, some of the traditional songs have very basic lyrics.

Figuring out a best song is difficult as many of the early tracks (actually up through "Sailor") are pretty decent, even if thematically monolithic. I'll say the simple, lost sadness of "Sailor" is the outstanding track. The tracks "The Cuckoo" and "Horsey" with their somewhat ridiculous and very Country lyrics and/or sound have the least appeal to me.

For other Hem works, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Birds And Beasts And Flowers (EP with Autumn Defense)
Twelfth Night Soundtrack


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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

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