Friday, September 28, 2012

Nothing New From This Country: Hem’s Funnel Cloud Underwhelms.

The Good: Amazing voice, One or two good songs
The Bad: Derivative of earlier Hem works, Much more Country, Predictable rhymes
The Basics: On their fourth album, Hem seems to be running low on decent writing, though the band's voice and sound remain strong.

Somehow, earlier this year, I simply became a fan of Hem. I don't know how it happened, but I saw the cover for No Word From Tom, listened to "The Fire Thief" on Eveningland and started buying and listening to Hem's albums. So, I was quite surprised in early autumn when I was randomly wandering through one of my favorite shops in Salem, MA, that I found Hem's new album Funnel Cloud. And for those who actually read my hundreds of reviews, you know I don't usually buy c.d.s from artists unless I know three singles from the album or they are one of the few artists that I'll buy anything from (like Heather Nova, Dar Williams, and Oasis). Apparently, Hem managed to get into that elite group.

But this was the last time.

Hem's music, on their three prior full-length discs, has existed on a self-created border between light pop-rock, country and folk and my original instinct was to enjoy the music for its originality. Funnel Cloud crosses the group over into a much more distinctly Country music category. "The Pills Stopped Working" has a distinct Country sound, even if the lyrics aren't. "Old Adam" has the classic country sound, but "Not California" and especially "Too Late To Turn Back Now" have that new country flavor I'm not fond of. So, while the prior releases were much more mixed, Funnel Cloud is more country and I'm personally not a fan.

That's not to say it's all Country. "Old Adam" has the slow, sad sound of classic folk. Hem effectively creates a new folk song that sounds like it could have been sung in the hills of West Virginia for the last eighty years. That's talent.

Hem also has a way of leaving their albums somewhat unbalanced. On Eveningland, for example, the last four tracks are mind-blowingly wonderful, while the other tracks tend to oscillate in quality. On Funnel Cloud, there are three solid tracks right in the middle: "Great Houses of New York," "Curtains," and "Old Adam." "Great Houses of New York" is a sad, empty framework whispered out by lead singer Sally Ellyson. "Curtains" explores a woman who leaves her love and makes the difficult road back and it finds her voice strong and powerful. And "Old Adam," is a field folk song. And they are the core of the album, but Funnel Cloud has little else to it.

Part of the problem is the sound of many of the tracks on Funnel Cloud. As much as I like "Great Houses of New York," it's a deeply derivative track. It begins with a sound much like "Carry Me Home" from Eveningland. And "Curtains" is basically a rewrite of Hem's song "Strays." "I'll Dream of You Tonight" sounds like a prior Hem song as well. So while these songs might be fine for other artists, in Hem's repertoire, they create the feel that the band is already running out of musical ideas. And that's a shame.

What is an even greater shame is that the writing on Funnel Cloud has become a great deal more predictable than on prior Hem works. Dan Meese, the primary writer of Hem's songs, seems to have stopped trying to challenge himself in terms of rhymes. The album opens with a very short track where Meese doesn't even try. Much of the song is simply repeating the line :"We'll meet along the way, I know." It's easy to rhyme lines when you're simply repeating the same line over and over again. Such apathy for attempting originality continues into "He Came To Meet Me," whose first line rhymes "me" with "me." It's filled with stale, overdone rhymes: day/way, near/fear, and night/light, for example. Funnel Cloud, both the album and the track, are filled with predictable rhymes. It causes the listener to tire quickly of this album.

Still, to their credit Hem has a rather rich sound, owing in large part to the vocal talents of Sally Ellyson. She has an amazing voice and she sells the band. This album is still impressive for her voice. She has an amazing soprano that has no counterpart in mainstream pop culture. She is a gem that has to be heard to be believed. Should I ever go to a Hem concert, it will be because I want to see that siren sing!

The other plus is that Hem has a wonderful sense of musical history and especially a great, rich sound. Put in the most plain possible terms, Hem uses lots of different instruments and it uses them quite well. How many groups list the "glockenspiel" as the second instrument used by the band in their liner notes?! Moreover, how many groups have two artists who play the glockenspiel on their album? Hem has two glockenspiel and two mandolin players and Dan Meese plays the Celeste as well. This is not a musically untalented group.

They have talent coming out of ever orifice. Unfortunately, on their latest outing, Hem does not illustrate it as well as they could. The best track is "Great Houses of New York," the most disappointing is "We'll Meet Along The Way."

For other Hem works, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Rabbit Songs
Birds And Beasts And Flowers (EP with Autumn Defense)
No Word From Tom
Twelfth Night Soundtrack


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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

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