Hem | No Word From Tom (Nettwerk)

Who else but Ellyson and Co. could totally reimagine a song like R.E.M.’s “South Central Rain” as an elegant, graceful ballad, in which every word from Ellyson’s dulcet voice caresses your ears?

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If Sally Ellyson ever started singing instruction manuals, I think I could learn basic carpentry skills or even computer programming. The lullaby-sweet vocalist for Hem has such a captivating, pull-you-right-in quality that you can’t help but pay attention—and key in on every little emotional nuance. Ellyson’s pipes have taken Hem to the top of the Americana heap lately; the phrase “well-kept secret” no longer applies to these Brooklyn spellcasters. The secret’s out, plainly, and it makes their third recording, No Word From Tom, of far more interest than the “outtakes and rarities” collection as it’s intended.

This is, in fact, be one of the classiest and most consistently listenable rarities collection today. Who else but Hem could make an utterly gorgeous one-minute song out of a “mis-hearing” of one of their own tunes (“The City and the Traveler”)? Who else but Ellyson and Co. could totally reimagine a song like R.E.M.’s “South Central Rain” as an elegant, graceful ballad, in which every word from Ellyson’s dulcet voice caresses your ears? (Stipey, did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you flattered a bunch?) Hem aren’t known for covers, although they released a previous EP in which they took on Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, and Bruce Springsteen. Here, they offer a stirring version of Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a surprising cover of Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe” (the muted chordings on Steve Curtis’ acoustic guitar to underscore the vocal’s beauty and the pristine production are examples of a group utilizing their talents to perfection), and a live staple, “The Tennessee Waltz,” which sounds as timeless and charming as ever.

The rest of this generous disc contains strong live performances of some Hem classics: “Betting on Trains,” “All That I’m Good For,” “Lazy Eye,” and the exquisitely lovely “Sailor.” Dedicated Hem-sters will also relish a pair of Eveningland outtakes (“The Present” and “Oh No”), a wry take on the country chesnut “Crazy Arms” (the motive behind which the sleeve notes give a humorous explanation), and a truly gorgeous closing lullaby, “The Golden Day Is Dying,” that features Ellyson and Curtis harmonizing so delicately that a gust of wind would blow the tune out the window. But nothing seems to hamper the mission of this group, which seemingly is to establish a sparkling new brand of richly cinematic, nostalgic Americana.

Let it be said that the combination of Ellyson’s voice, Dan Messe’s lit-from-within keyboards and the rustic acoustic work of Curtis and Gary Maurer (mandolin and guitar) has quickly become one of the warmest, most effortlessly pretty sounds in modern pop. And though jaded types may whine that things are too slow or too polished, any real music fan can’t help but be charmed by Hem. They’re a sweet, uncynical band in a very cynical time, and their music reflects the better world we all wish for. Until their next official studio album, No Word From Tom is a more than adequate way to pass a little Hem time.

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