Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lonely Cover Belays Sorrowful Covers With Hem’s No Word From Tom

The Good: Excellent instrumentals, imaginative covers, Great voice
The Bad: Live versions add little, One or two duds
The Basics: On Hem's third full album, they tackle reinterpreting their own work, presenting their deleted work and covering others, with mixed results.

No Word From Tom is what got me into Hem. Actually, it was the cover of the album that did it. You know how sometimes, we bring our own "stuff" to our interpretation of art? Well, I was at Barnes and Noble early this year and I saw the cover to No Word From Tom and I thought the picture, with the title, was absolutely perfect. I saw the cover as a lonely woman sitting on her bed, looking mournfully over old love letters. This was a woman waiting, so coupled with the title No Word From Tom, it was perfect to me. Upon closer inspection, the cover is actually a pretty mellow lead singer (Sally Ellyson) looking over sheets of music, but hey, it worked for me for a long time.

No Word From Tom, Hem's third full-length album is a mixed bag of demos, live performances, coversongs and "rarities" produced from 2000 to 2005. The album opens with the mood I anticipated based on my interpretation of the cover with a truncated version of the lullaby "All The Pretty Horses" and the cover "Rainy Night In Georgia." The disc shifts gears abruptly on the third track and after that, it's track by track for mood. The surprising thing about No Word From Tom is that - for an album that is a compilation of different performances and venues and moods - the album is remarkably cohesive and solid as an album.

What works? Certainly the mood. The consistent quality of Sally Ellyson's voice is remarkable. She has a simply stunning soprano that tackles everything thrown at it. So while "Radiation Vibe" is fast and quirky, "Cincinnati Traveler" is soft and poetic, and "South Central Rain" is wrenchingly sad, Ellyson's voice carries the album with consistency that makes the work undeniably Hem. Or hers, I suppose.

"South Central Rain" is the notable cover song on No Word From Tom. From R.E.M.'s album "Reckoning," Hem's cover is a reimagining of the song a la Sophie B. Hawkins' amazing cover of Dylan's "I Want You." In both instances, the artists change the tempo and tenor of the song to more accurately portray and present the emotions of the lyrics. And while some object to such reimaginings, in both cases, the cover artists nail the song. Hem's "South Central Rain" is haunting and lonely, a perfect take on the lyrics.

As far as outtakes go, it is interesting to note that the outtakes on this album are both from Eveningland and the bulk of the live performances are from Rabbit Songs. The standout outtake is "Oh No," which has a strong folk feel to it. It seemed odd to me that Hem would release such a project (essentially six of the eighteen tracks are not unique to this album, being live versions of songs from the prior two albums) so early in their career, but the album works. For the most part.

The last thing about No Word From Tom that really kicks are the two versions of "The Cincinnati Traveler" with lyrics that were not on Eveningland (the two version are "The Cincinnati Traveler" and "The City and the Traveler") and the completed, unabridged version of Eveningland. Both tracks beg the question "why wasn't this released on Eveningland?" The unabridged "Eveningland" seems especially baffling as the prior album bore its name.

Anyway, what doesn't work is mostly a matter of taste. Hem's cover of "The Tennessee Waltz" does nothing for me. I'm not terribly fond of the original, but the cover doesn't honestly add anything interesting to the song, making me wonder "why did they bother?" After all, an artist as talented vocally as Sally Ellyson need not cover a song simply to show she can do it. When Hem covers another's work, I want it to be because they have a new twist on it.

Similarly, the live tracks seem to be placesavers to build up the volume on the album. I love "The Beautiful Sea" on Eveningland and while I like the live version on No Word From Tom, it doesn't exactly pop anything new at the listener. It is, essentially, the same song. And I already had that. And without the live tracks, No Word From Tom would never have been released as a full album. They bulk up the album.

But, to be fair, by the time one hits the first live versions of previous Hem songs, odds are they'll be hooked. And I have to give credit to the band for their liner notes. Hem graces their listener with explanations for each track. That's classy.

Who will like No Word From Tom? Anyone who liked Rabbit Songs or Eveningland will no doubt enjoy this album. I, personally, don't believe it's the Hem work to start on, despite the quality of "South Central Rain" and the full orchestral version of "Eveningland." Anyone who likes a strong female artist - admittedly, the lyrics are by Dan Meese, who is a guy - will enjoy the vocals by Sally Ellyson, though some of the guys pipe up in some of the live versions of Hem songs in ways that can be distracting. Some of the tracks are flat out country (the honky-tonk "Crazy Arms" jumps out) and will be noticed by those who do not like country.

It's a tough album to recommend to people who are not fans of Hem because so much of the work is derivative, the band showing off what they can do and have done. Is it a bad album? No. And the cover alone is worth staring at for forty-eight minutes.

The best track is "South Central Rain" and the weak point is "The Tennessee Waltz."

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


For other music reviews, be sure to 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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