Hem | Funnel Cloud (Nettwerk)

You get a timeless travelogue, a spine-tingling serenade filled with both wistful nostalgia and warm contemplation of life's unfolding journey.

 


So rare is it for a band to have a singular vision from the start-and then proceed to successfully realize virtually every aspect of that vision-that it tends to make a permanent mark on the popular music landscape when it happens. It's as rare, in fact, as spotting a funnel cloud- and just as unforgettable.

Hence the uniqueness of Hem, who've appropriately titled their new disc Funnel Cloud. The Brooklyn quartet long dreamed of making its own brand of pastoral Americana that would combine influences such as Aaron Copland, the Carter Family, traditional folksongs, lullabies, and evocative film music. With the natural gifts of vocalist extraordinaire Sally Ellyson and the flawless production work of multi-instrumentalist Gary Maurer and pianist Dan Messe (rounded out by guitarist Dan Curtis), Hem had all the ingredients it needed to achieve its aim. Rabbit Songs and Eveningland were the first two, rapturously received chapters-followed by the stretching exercises of last year's No Word From Tom. Now Funnel Cloud graces Hem's horizon, and it's truly a whirlwind of captivating songcraft.

There are few other American groups making music so breezily beautiful. Some kind of magic results when these Messe/Maurer/Curtis compositions are given over to Ellyson to lend her lulling voice to. You get a timeless travelogue, a spine-tingling serenade filled with both wistful nostalgia and warm contemplation of life's unfolding journey. "Not California" weaves one elegant detail after another-the soft orchestration, the chorus of "na na na's"-into a fabric of heartfelt yearning for a love that seems all too mythical. The title track gives Ellyson a backdrop of rustic acoustic guitar and Messe's' impossibly delicate piano chords for some old-fashioned lyrical spellcasting: "Clapboard on the houses/Clothesline threading through/Holding down the corners/Of the field where we grew/Off on the horizon/The same thing every day/Till a painted backdrop rises up/And blows our world away." The tornado metaphor, of course, applies to the sudden changes that strike our lives without warning-it's a key to Hem's focus on this album, and their aesthetic of appreciating the simple gifts while they're here.

"Too Late to Turn Back Now," "Pills Stopped Working" and "Reservoir" could almost be called country songs, but the elegance and purity of the latter track separate it from lazy genre-marking. Hem is quite painterly in the way it applies its sonic colors. The emotional climax of the album arrives with a trio of songs in the middle-"Hotel Fire," "Great Houses of New York," and "Curtains." This is arguably the most beautiful, heart-tugging nine minutes Hem has yet recorded, and Messe deserves a chunk of the credit for his utterly exquisite playing. The delicate melancholy of "Houses" is positively Sondheimesque, and there's something almost spooky about the way Hem make every instrument in the mix sound as hushed or contemplative as Ellyson's sweet voice. You can almost feel the prairie wind blowing on "Curtains," a cinematic tune that places you squarely at its center.

Hem has already set the bar ridiculously high, but Funnel Cloud just may its best work yet. It certainly blows away the competition with its whirlwind of melody, stirring songcraft, and far-reaching emotions.

RIYL: Sandy Denny, Stephen Foster, nostalgic fireside tales

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