It’s so succinct and sweet that it goes by in the blink of an eye, the title track of Hem’s new disc, Eveningland. Clocking in at 1 minute and 1 second, it begins with the lonesome drone of a clarinet, presently joined by a bed of soft, swirling strings, steadily swelling into a full swoon in a matter of moments before coming to a close with a dramatic pause and the final, fading plucks of a harp’s strings. It is, in a single, definitive word, beautiful.
And though it’s not entirely representative of Hem’s music as a whole — generally they play more traditional three-minute pop songs with evocative lyrics set to the melodies of pianos and guitars — “Eveningland” keenly captures the essence of what is magical about this Brooklyn band’s music, and why they have been so passionate about creating it.
Theirs is, in some respects, a lost art. Adrift amid a pop world obsessed with image and message, ego and style, Hem’s aesthetic aims squarely for the heart. It’s mainly a mood they wish to invoke — the enveloping echo of a cherished childhood memory, the sensory lure of a picture-perfect landscape, the lingering ache of a long-lost love.
Certainly they’re not alone in choosing such a path, but few have followed it as deeply into the music as Hem, or created art with such intimate emotional resonance. The blueprint was established on their debut disc Rabbit Songs, which was essentially released four times over the course of four years — first as a very limited DIY project in 2000, then in 2001 on U.K. label Setanta, next in 2002 in the U.S. on indie label Bar/None, and finally in 2003 at the big-league level on DreamWorks.
The band was recording its second album for DreamWorks when the label was sold and closed in January 2004. Things eventually worked out relatively well for Hem; they got the rights back and issued Eveningland on October 5 on their own Waveland label with distribution through Rounder Records. If Rabbit Songs suggested Hem was one of the most promising new acts of the decade, then Eveningland, quite simply, delivers on that promise.
How they got to this point is a rather intriguing tale of unfulfilled aspirations, grand visions, and simple twists of fate.
At the center of Hem’s story is pianist and primary songwriter Dan Messe (pronounced Meh-SAY), a native of Michigan who moved to Brooklyn in 1991 and spent much of the ’90s as a work-for-hire instrumentalist and composer, doing “music for industrial films and multimedia music and theater music,” he explains.
Messe also had a band on the side, Big Iron Skillet, which played “sort of uptempo funky country music,” he says. A development deal with Sony resulted in an EP that Messe basically disowns now.
“It was just a terrible experience,” he laments. “I had no creative control. There was a song called ‘Caroline’, and there was a lyric I’d written that was: ‘The pond out by the Pontiac/I’d drink it dry if it’d bring you back.’ And the producer would scream at me that I couldn’t use the words pond and Pontiac in a song, because no one in America knew what that was. I had to say ‘The car out by the lake.’
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he was like, ‘You can’t be specific.’ They were all about being general. No specifics — nothing that could distinguish your voice from anyone, any other songwriters. It was just a really negative experience.
“I started Rabbit Songs as sort of a reaction against that. I just wanted to do something that I had total control over, and that could be as uncool as I wanted. I wanted to write these songs like ‘Horsey’ and ‘Lazy Eye’; there was no irony — nothing but just really sweet, heartfelt music.”
It’s telling that he refers to the project as Rabbit Songs, rather than Hem. Messe actually named the record before there was a band name, or even a band — which is just one of many instances in which the development of Hem proceeded almost diametrically opposite to the way contemporary pop bands usually take shape. Consider the following:
• Most bands play many months of live shows before they approach the studio. Hem spent many months in the studio before playing its first live show.
• Most bands begin with a DIY recording that involves cutting corners to keep costs as low as possible. Rabbit Songs, Hem’s DIY debut, began with a $5,000 budget, but the band kept adding layers of instrumentation until the final cost was about $80,000. (“We sold our equipment, we sold whatever we could,” Messe says.)
• Most bands begin building their sound with a singer, and add a producer only when they begin recording. The first person Messe teamed with was producer/engineer Gary Maurer (who also plays guitar and mandolin); the final recruit was singer Sally Ellyson, who was added just a few weeks before Rabbit Songs was made.
Ellyson’s entry into the band is worthy of further discussion, for it was undoubtedly the most destiny-defined chapter of Hem’s complicated history. On both Rabbit Songs and Eveningland, the most immediately distinctive stamp to the sound is Ellyson’s voice, an utterly enchanting instrument that seems an absolutely perfect match for Messe’s melodic material. Yet it very nearly was never there at all.