(Bar None, 2002)
I would like to give a word of thanks to the designers of Hem's Rabbit Songs album cover. It breaks away from the wretched, flimsy jewel-box idea and makes great use of the space given to it. Smooth to the touch and graceful in design, it's a pleasure simply to look at. It's a fitting cover for an album with as much style and delicacy as Rabbit Songs.
Hem starts Rabbit Songs as they started the band, with an a cappella lullaby from lead singer Sally Ellyson. Raw and sweet like fresh sugar cane, "Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please" leads off an album that's been polished to a gentle shine. The transition from Ellyson's a cappella to the polished orchestral music that fills Rabbit Songs comes in the beginning of "When I Was Drinking." That shift from bare-voiced, traditional and brief to layered, new and rambling takes the listener from just watching a song to the inside heart of the singer. Ellyson's voice is well suited for these poetic, thoughtful lyrics. High and dreamy, sometimes almost whispering herself to silence, she infuses the album with a relaxed passion. It blunts the edge of emotions that would otherwise be too painful to linger over, and lets them shine for a moment.
Rabbit Songs is mostly not a happy album. It moves from the pain of "When I Was Drinking" to the regret of "Halfacre," a slow ramble through the home territory of the heart that ends in a wordless "Burying Song." "Betting On Trains" seems to have moved from past hurts to present worries, with the least pluck of bluegrass twang adding to the lonesomeness of the song. The shock of the farewell carries through "Leave Me Here" and the self distaste of "All That I'm Good For." All these bitter thoughts are presented gently, with a warmth the darker emotions are rarely given credit for. It makes them seem less foreign to the hopeful dreams of "Idle (The Rabbit Song)" and painful hope of "Stupid Mouth Shut."
This is one of the most unified albums I've heard outside of classical music, with each song sounding more like the next piece in a greater suite The lyrics, at first so poetic as to feel almost random, grow with every note spent in the world of Rabbit Songs. "Halfacre" is, on first hearing, a clever linking of symbols and time, but becomes more emotional and personal with each song added onto it. And there is a great sense of connection from Hem's performance. It's hard to believe this is the first album from a new band. Seven musicians and a vocalists rarely achieve such unity of sound. There's a small orchestra of instruments at play here, and each can be picked out of the whole with a little listening.
But if you don't look for the separations between the notes, there's only one instrument at work, and it's called Hem. Sally Ellyson's vocals are as much a part of that whole as Dan Messe's piano or Gary Maurer's mandolin. Ellyson never seems to stand apart from the band or usurp center stage. Despite her opening solo performance, Ellyson is not the whole strength of Hem, as the several instrumental pieces make clear. "Burying Song," the kinder "Polly's Dress" and the ending "Waltz" provide a chance to regroup, an alternate look at the rabbit's night world.
Classifying new musicians is always tricky, but in the case of Hem, it's especially pointless. Too refined for folk, too controlled for rock, Hem has its own sound which is simply beautiful. With luck, they'll inspire a movement in their style and achieve a name that way. In the meantime, the only label they fit under is Rabbit Songs.