Hem – “Eveningland”
I’m sat by my window, watching the last of the inky blue drain from the sky, replaced by the dull orange glow of the motorway and silhouettes of houses and trees. I’m sipping a dram of Bowmore 12. The soundtrack to this moment is an album by a New York band called Hem.
Eveningland is an impossibly beautiful album. At first glance it seems almost Disney-soundtrack-esque and chintzy, but it runs deeper than that. It’s a country album made by city-dwellers, a folk album made by people writing their own tradition, an album full of the high, lonesome sound of the pedal steel then layered up with the orchestral strings and woodwind to give an appropriately cinematic scale to what critics have variously called their “countrypolitan” or “chamber folk” sound.
It’s tough to pick highlights; part of Eveningland‘s charm is how cohesive a piece it is, how coherent and pervasive the themes are. It is full of stories of fear; the fear of loss, the fear of change, of losing the things we care about.”The Fire Thief” is a lullaby of sorts, the refrain ‘Leave the light on…’ plays on the child’s fear of the dark, a theme that returns in “Hollow”:
But it’s a hard road that we follow
The saddest cities, and the darkest hollows
There are musical moments as frequent as the lyrical delights: “Redwing” has a double bass line that drives the pre-chorus along, arriving at a euphoric, jubilant vocal that makes every right-thinking person grin uncontrollably. “An Easy One” is just a delightful songwriting premise perfectly executed.
The album moves from merely lovely to downright astonishing somewhere in the second half. “Strays” is adorned with clarinet and, eventually, vocal harmonies that drive home the power of the melody. I’m even rather fond of their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”, a song I could take or leave before I heard this slow, langourous, light-as-air version.
But the undoubted highlight is “Pacific Street”, the first song of theirs I ever heard, thanks to a friend who sent me the track and then directed me to the album from which it came. (Your musical companionship is much appreciated, as is your predilection for Chablis…)
It is preceded by the title track, a 62-second instrumental where the clarinet and violins take turns to lead a simple ascending three-note motif before a harp plays a VI-minor chord, accompanied by shimmering strings. The listener is unsettled by the surprise minor chord and this feeling remains in the ensuing silence. Into that uncertainty comes Pacific Street, the musical equivalent of being wrapped in a blanket of softness and reassurance. Sally Ellyson’s smooth, Karen Carpenter-sweet voice tells a simple story of two people meeting on a street corner, two relative strangers seeking mutual comfort, perhaps both running from the same unspecified something. For me, it has the same jaw-droppingly elegant, simple perfection as Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark;” it gets in, says its piece and gets out, deceptively simple yet somehow profoundly moving. You find yourself going back wondering how they did it, looking for some musical trick of the half-light.
Eveningland is the soundtrack to countless happy evenings. What in the cold light of day might seem facile or mawkish in the evening becomes perfectly-weighted, delicate, exquisite. Pour yourself a glass of something good and give it a spin.