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It's Hem again

By Dan MacIntosh, December 2004

"This album has been a long time coming," Dan Messe admits, when asked about Hem's second release called "Eveningland."

The group, which incorporates bits of country, folk and other stray Americana elements into its soothing musical mix, released its debut "Rabbit Songs" on DreamWorks, and was about to put this newest album out on that same label before the company suddenly folded into a bigger label as part of the Universal merger.

"We weren't sure how this album would be met because it's definitely a bigger sound than 'Rabbit Songs' and has a little more of a pop sensibility in some ways," he continues. "So we worried that some of the hardcore folky part of our audience would not follow us on this journey. But so far the reaction has been really heartwarming. People have loved the direction that we're taking."

The pre-release buzz on the new direction of "Eveningland" suggested that this project for the New York-based band was heavily influenced by a distinct "countrypolitan" vibe, a term given to some of the better examples of overtly orchestrated pop-country, primarily created during the seventies. Artists like George Jones and Tammy Wynette are closely associated with this sonic description.

But the music on this latest Hem disc probably won't bring either of those particular iconic artists to mind.

"To me, countrypolitan has two sides to it," Messe, who is Hem's main songwriter, explains. "One is like the George Jones country music where they added strings. (But) for us, a lot of these songs are pretty much straight ahead folk songs or country songs that we sort of "poli-sized" by adding an orchestra. And on the other end of it, there are people who do country songs in totally different arrangements. Sort like Ray Charles, of 'Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol 1.' He just took these great country songs and did 'em the way that he did 'em."

"So we took 'Jackson,' for example, which is that great song Johnny Cash and June Carter made famous, and 'Hem-ify' that. So, it's a starting point. We don't ever want to take a genre and do it verbatim. We're just sort of interested in taking something and making it our own. This is our version of countrypolitan. I would guess that it's been more influenced by countrypolitan artists like Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry than the George Jones/Tammy Wynette (wing)."

Messe has praise-a-plenty, and then some, for Campbell and the music he gave to the world back during his unique heyday.

"Lord knows I've been a fan for years and years," he gushes. "His arranger, Al DeLory, I'm a fan of. He did all the string arrangements on, like, 'Wichita Lineman.' There's this sense that anything can happen at any time because it's like this otherworldly atmosphere. If I had to pick one song out of those artists, 'Wichita Lineman' is the song the song that most inspired us when we were making this album. In fact, we listened to it almost every day before we went to work. We never tried to copy it; we just set out to capture some of those musical possibilities that exist in that world."

There's a funny story behind how the band ultimately came around to "Hem-ifying," so to speak, the song "Jackson."

"We went about picking that song in a sort of backwards way," Messe explains. "We had to do an EP for the UK and Ireland because we had sort of released 'Rabbit Songs' a year earlier there than in the States, so it had been a long time since we'd released anything (over there)."

"So we sort of made an EP of covers to sort of tie them over. I was listening to my copy of 'At Folsom Prison,' and there's that great exchange of dialogue that Johnny Cash and June Carter have where June comes up on stage and Johnny says, 'I love to watch you talk.' Then June says, 'Well, I'm talking with my mouth; it's way up here,' because he's looking at her breasts. And I just loved that phrase ("I'm talking with my mouth"), and I knew I wanted to call this EP 'I'm Talking with My Mouth.' That's the intro to the song 'Jackson,' so I thought, well why not try to 'Hem-ify' that song. And we'd been writing a lot of songs about marriage at the time. Like I'd written 'Strays' and 'Lucky,' which are, for me, about getting married and settling down. And that song ('Jackson') is sort of the flipside of marriage. So, it just seemed like a natural. And then we found this sort of great arrangement that sort of brought out the melancholy behind the sass. We just sort of fell in love with it."

About half of the songs on Hem's first album were written before Messe had even met its singer, Sally Ellyson, after placing an ad in the Village Voice. So "Eveningland" represents the first album where Messe has written completely with Ellyson's vocals in mind.

And has this changed Messe's writing style? "Absolutely, a hundred percent," he says emphatically. "Now when I write, I hear her voice. Most songwriters, when they're writing, they hear their own voice in their head. Now for me, it's like a ventriloquist act. I just hear her voice. It definitely changed how I write because my voice is a pretty limited instrument, to say the least. For her, I just know what's going to sound good, and she has so much more ability to take a song to a place that I couldn't ever take a song to. And also because she's so detached when she sings in a lot of ways. She's almost like Karen Carpenter, in that she sings in a very emotionally detached tone that to me is almost more powerful than someone who's injecting all this schmaltz into a song. So it allows me as a songwriter to be more emotional because I'm not afraid of ever becoming thwarted or anything like that."

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