Hem: Rabbit Songs (Bar None)

This is a gorgeously evocative tapestry of folk, country, and subtly orchestrated Sondheim-esque balladry with gem-perfect piano playing, rustic guitar, and fiddle.

If I had only a few lines to summarize the exquisite debut album by Brooklyn’s Hem, I would tell you that this is a gorgeously evocative tapestry of folk, country, and subtly orchestrated Sondheim-esque balladry with gem-perfect piano playing, rustic guitar, and fiddle, and the caressing, gentle-as-a-breeze vocals of divinely gifted songbird Sally Ellyson. But there’s more you should know. Hem was a band in search of a vocalist just a couple of years ago, a band that wasn’t yet happening. Songwriter/keyboard player Dan Messe had teamed up with guitarist/mandolin player/producer Gary Maurer with the intention of making a contemporary
Americana album. Their friend Steve Curtis (guitar, mandolin) joined up, but the trio needed a singer. They placed an ad in The Village Voice and received all sorts of wacky demos—but nothing that grabbed them. The ad was pulled; shortly thereafter, Messe got a call from Sally Ellyson, who was nearly apologetic about the fact that she “wasn’t really a singer.” Messe was ready to be disappointed again—until Ellyson bowled him over with one of the sweetest, most entrancing voices he’d ever heard. It was a stroke of good fortune indeed; the band had their singer. The sessions for Rabbit Songs got underway, evolving into something utterly magical and inspired the more the group played together.

The Cowboy Junkies have been mentioned as stylistic forebears of Hem, and Ellyson’s tone has a few similarities to early Joan Baez and the Places’ Amy Annelle. But the natural purity and warmth of her voice is truly a gift from the cosmos. When coupled with the delicate, shivery piano playing of Messe, and occasional classical instrumentation (such as the cello and oboe on “Leave Me Here” by, respectively, Mary Wooten and Pam Ajango), the effect is just devastating. Pleasantly rustic toe tappers like “All That I’m Good For” and “Stupid Mouth Shut” (with Mark Brotter’s feather-light percussion) ascend to musical nirvana from the masterful, uncluttered arrangements and Ellyson’s spine-tingling delivery.

All the songs are short, pretty, and richly melodic. There’s a cinematic sheen to the whole production; just listen to the overwhelmingly beautiful “Sailor” (which includes a small orchestra, and which alone is enough to get these folks hired to score a romantic film) or the wistful violin-laden ballads (Ronit Kirchman gets credit there) “When I Was Drinking” and “Lazy Eye,” the latter worthy of a tear or two. In fact, there are several brief, evocative instrumentals. And, honestly, Maurer and Messe should be teaching engineering classes to would-be producers everywhere, so magical is their work here.

In all honesty, Hem’s Rabbit Songs is one of the most naturally beautiful and comforting albums I’ve ever heard. It’s a work of timeless, blissful American songcraft, one born of musicians who must have been in a state of rapture themselves to be able to so effortlessly induce that very feeling in the listener.

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