Hem: Twelfth Night

Hem’s new album Twelfth Night was just released today. I was excited to hear the new material since their previous album Funnel Cloud was #2 on my 2006 Top Albums List. But Hem fans expecting another pretty, folk-country song collection may be surprised by the band’s new original score for The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night. The band livens up the genteel Medieval folk sound of The Bard’s era with a unique blend of Celtic, folk, and soft pop. Actress Anne Hathaway and singer Audra McDonald are among the album’s guest vocalists.

The more spirited reels, such as the traditional “Black Thorn Stick” and “The Rose in the Heather,” spin elements of Irish and Scottish music. And “The Funeral,” written by Hem’s own Dan Messe, is pure Celtic dirge.

Anne Hathaway’s dulcet voice breathes through “Take, O Take Those Lips Away,” and she duets with singer Audra McDonald on the beautiful ballad “Full Phathom Five.” The latter features lyrics culled from The Tempest.

Dave Pittu sings the part of an Elizabethan minstrel in “O Mistress Mine,” and joins Hathaway and Raul Esparza for “Come Away Death.” Elsewhere, a lilting flute carries the instrumental “To the Gates of Tartar.”

My only complaints about the album are the lack of vocals by Hem singer Sally Ellyson and the brevity of the songs due to the nature of the theatrical production.

I was not granted permission to share an mp3, but you can hear samples at the links below.

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Hem Official Site

Hem: Funnel Cloud

Funnel Cloud is the third studio album by Hem. Led by vocalist Sally Ellyson, the band describes their style as “Metropolitan Country” (also known as countrypolitan). The sound is a mix of Tin Pan Alley folk and Malibu dream pop – melodic with a slight twang. Sally’s voice is strong and so pretty. A mix of Eleni Mandell, Zooey Daschenel, and Joni Mitchell. The songs on Funnel Cloud conjure up quaint hometown images of Our Town and The Wizard Of Oz.

I first heard Hem back in 2002 when they opened for Beth Orton in the smokey Headliner’s Music Hall in Louisville, KY. Their sound has greatly matured since then.

Songs like “We’ll Meet Along The Way”, “Hotel Fire”, and the incredibly beautiful “Great Houses Of New York” have subtle (yet substantial) melodies that allow Sally’s stunning voice to take the spotlight it well deserves. And “Funnel Cloud” sounds more like a soft lullaby than a song about a tornado destroying a town.

The pretty stand out track “Not California” spins into a harmonica laced mellow retro pop direction with a soaring chorus. The track apparently features guest vocals by former Smashing Pumpkins member James Iha, but his voice is blended into the background harmonies.

Other songs have a country flavor to them, such as the old love reunion tale “He Came To Meet Me” and “Too Late To Turn Back Now” – the latter with fiddle by Alison Cornell and guest vocals by Ollabelle’s Amy Helm.

Iha and Helm return for “The Pills Stopped Working” (this Appalachian girl misread the title as “the hills stopped working”), which also has harmonica by Jon Diamond. The track starts out like a simple country tune, but the harmonies build in the second half as the arrangement broadens with pounding piano.

“The Burnt-Over District” is a cinematic instrumental. The lyrics of “Reservoir” express the beauty of home in the eye of the beholder over more popular landscapes. And “Almost Home” is a charmingly sweet and sentimental finale for this nearly perfect album.

Hem Official Site
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