American Beauty 

New Yorkers Hem tap the nation's musical colloquialisms on their elegant new album

New Yorkers Hem tap the nation's musical colloquialisms on their elegant new album

Refined musicians have often looked to American vernacular music for inspiration. While sometimes pretentious, this highbrow take on earthy styles also has resulted in outstanding music, from the works of Stephen Foster, Aaron Copland and Randy Newman to Duke Ellington's "Creole Rhapsody," Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" and Oklahoma and dozens of other musicals.

In recent years, a New York movement has centered on bands that filter folk, country and blues through an art-school prism, with Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Wayfaring Strangers, Tin Hat Trio and Ollabelle, among others, displaying varying degrees of success. Among the most compelling are Hem, whose new Eveningland (Rounder) is a mesmerizing, moody album that draws on country and folk themes yet has a stately elegance that separates it from its influences. Recorded with the Slovak National Radio Orchestra, the record is cool and distant on the surface, yet passionate at its core.

Hem are the brainchild of pianist Dan Messe, a composer who has created music for theatrical productions and film. He found his muse in singer Sally Ellyson, whose lush alto, which is reminiscent of Karen Carpenter and Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, has a whispered intimacy that nevertheless keeps its distance.

With co-producer Gary Maurer on mandolin and Steven Curtis on guitar, Hem expand their elegiac sound with string orchestrations, vibes and woodwinds. It doesn't always work. The band's slowed-down cover of Johnny and June Carter Cash's "Jackson" strips away the playful sass that makes the original so unforgettable. At their best, though, Hem create music that's majestic and moving without mussing its clothes. Like a waltz where both partners feel more than they reveal, Hem prove there's power in restraint, and that a range of emotions can be expressed within refinement.

—Michael McCall

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