...beautifully crafted, yearning music with a strong emotional undertow...
Jon Lusk 2005-03-14
Though the term 'alt. country' has only been around a few years, it's rapidly become an overcrowded genre, increasingly associated with lacklustre singer/songwriter product as bland and undistinguished as much of the mainstream Nashville pap that it was supposed to be an alternative to. No wonder this rather fine Brooklyn-based collective prefer to call what they do 'Countrypolitan'.
Hem make beautifully crafted, yearning music with a strong emotional undertow, which ploughs a nostalgic and deeply affectionate furrow through a tasteful soft focus vision of late '60s and early '70s Americana. Their two main assets are the lovely bell-like voice of Sally Ellyson (who's justifiably drawn comparisons with Karen Carpenter) and the combined songwriting talents of Dan Messé, Gary Maurer and Steve Curtis. For this second album, they all got on a big jet plane to visit the Slovak Radio Orchestra, whose silken strings add hugely to the expansively cinematic feel evoked throughout.
The lush, grandiose ambience they provide is offset by the rootsy, close-up sounds of banjo, mandolin and Bob Hoffnar's judicious use of pedal steel. There are also some inspired touches of clarinet and glockenspiel, and the harmony vocals by Curtis and Dawn Landes suit Ellyson's voice down to the ground.
"Receiver" is the sort of song that seventies soft rockers Bread would probably have had a top ten hit with, and elsewhere there are strong echoes of Glen Campbell circa "Witchita Linesman", and the likes of Randy Newman's less polemical songs. "Redwing" is about as contemporary as Hem seem to get, reminiscent as it is of Natalie Merchant's former band 10,000 Maniacs.
The only cover is a suitably sleepy take on "Jackson", the duet which Johnny and June Carter Cash made famous. The slowed-down pace is in-keeping with the rest of the album's soothing tones and languid tempos, which even include a couple of old-fashioned waltzes. "Strays" has a stirring hymn-like quality, and by the time they get tothe mysteriously affecting closer "Carry Me Home", it feels like the completion of a song cycle. OK, so there are a couple of places where blandness beckons, and the faux folk interlude "Cincinnati Traveller" sounds a little too close to "Waltzing Matilda". But that's only 62 seconds. Otherwise, Eveningland is a quietly impressive, polished album whose charms linger on like the gloaming after a long summer's day.