Most of the time, prolificacy and quality don’t go hand in hand. In the book world, the best examples of this truism are Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel. In the art world, you have Thomas Kinkade (whose paintings simply make me think that there lots of nice cottages in the country on fire from the inside). Hell, even Prince has a less than stellar album every now and again. There are exceptions, but very few. With only four albums completed, you can’t exactly call Hem prolific, but for the fact that the last three have been released within a two year time span. Okay, so No Word from Tom, released in February of this year, was somewhat of a cheat as an album of covers and rarities, but it still counted as proof that the band gets better with every attempt. Dan Messé and Gary Maurer’s songwriting seems to get smarter, while Sally Ellyson’s exquisite vocals get sweeter and more soulful. Funnel Cloud is Hem’s latest, the musical equivalent of a warm blanket just out of the dryer on a chilly fall evening.
Although not a true `centerpiece’ in the strictest sense of the word, “Not California” is the closest thing to it on Funnel Cloud. Featuring backup vocals by former (and now maybe current again) Pumpkin, James Iha, “Not California” builds and crescendos upon itself with each line, resulting in one of Hem’s most memorable songs ever recorded. Various songs throughout Funnel Cloud remind me of the work of Andrew Wyeth. Maybe it’s the idea of stereotypical Americana, with images of barns and fields, or then again, maybe it’s the image of the forlorn female and the ambiguity of the painting or song between helplessness and reveling amongst beauty. Or then again, maybe it’s the combination of those things. “Old Adam” is one of those songs that remind me of Wyeth. This story song of fathers and sons, redemption and forgiveness, has a similarity to Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” in musicality, and a similarity to Wyeth in its images of the working farmer. With songs like these, it’s sometimes simply nice to know that Hem has a record contract. Their songs are much smarter than almost everything else out there, which means it probably won’t get much radio play.
When I liken Hem’s music to a blanket, I am, of course, referring to its soothing comfort, but I am also making reference to its likelihood of being taken for granted. Nowadays, when folks start to feel a nip in the air, there’s an immediate rush for the thermostat. People tend to forget that a nice warm handmade blanket can sometimes be even more comfortable and cozy than a room at standard temperature. Similarly, when people are looking for adult contemporary relaxing music, they tend to flock towards the MOR fare on modern radio such as Jack Johnson, Daniel Powter, John Mayer, James Blunt, or the latest to draw my ire, Mat Kearney. Rather than these present day singer / songwriter abominations, true music fans should take a listen to Hem, a band steeped in country, folk and bluegrass traditions, erudite songwriting, and a voice that will thaw even the coldest of hearts.