Hem delighted fans and newcomers with their debut, Rabbit Songs, and its follow up, Eveningland. The pair could have -- and perhaps should have -- been released as a double-CD set; they sounded that similar to one another. Hem drew inevitable comparisons to the Cowboy Junkies because of Sally Ellyson's laid-back, clear vocal style, and sometimes to 10,000 Maniacs, although the latter never came close musically to this band's quiet power. The sheer gentleness and tenderness of Hem's earlier records were a sure draw, but after two albums the average listener felt as if Hem may have taken their sound as far as it could go. Fortunately, this simply isn't so. Dan Messe (piano, glockenspiel, celeste and harmony vocals) and Gary Maurer (guitar, harmonica, mandolin and harmony vocals) are founding members and the band's two principal songwriters, with guitarist and harmony vocalist Steve Curtis contributing songs as well. This trio looked deep and hard into their sound and came up with something beautifully different, though not so different as to alienate the faithful. Funnel Cloud is a much more lush affair and showcases Ellyson's vocals in an entirely new way. Self-produced, the songs here are of a much wider variety and reveal an entirely new dimension of the trio. While Hem remains committed to acoustic music, the electric guitars, pedal steels, found sounds, and tighter arrangements on Funnel Cloud showcase Ellyson as a passionate singer who perfectly interprets her bandmates lyrics and musical ideas.
The brief, droney, acoustic opener "Go Easy Now," which has the timeless sound of a traditional folk song isn't so much folksy as it delves deep into the ether of historical balladry with Ellyson upfront evoking the sadness, resignation, and lonely space of all the great singers from Norma Waterson to Hazel Dickens. On "He Came to Meet Me," the country-tinged sound begins to kiss inside the frame of Curtis' tune. It's a love song that is dressed in cello and violin, piano, guitar, and pedal steel as it wanders through a country shuffle. One can feel the anticipation and the gratitude in the clarity of Ellyson's voice. When it all gels in the strolling, gradually erupting "Not California," the presence of need, both spiritual and erotic, makes its presence felt. Ellyson's control is complete as the band builds gently, at first, to bring her up and out of her known persona. She can reach into herself and they know it; they go deep with her. It's such a perfectly natural collaboration it feels like this band has been together for decades. Ellyson's vocal talents are just beginning to shine, but it's the songs that make them radiant. The sense of dynamic and texture on Funnel Cloud is deeply nuanced, caressed instead of coerced. When Ellyson gets to "I'm the one who wants to be the one you're with tonight" everything swells to the breaking point and never quite does, thankfully. The back-to-back songs "Too Late to Turn Back Now" and "The Pills Stopped Working" are mirror images. The former is a straight-up country song that stretches the whole band while sounding as natural as if they've been playing road songs forever. The strings go far beyond the excesses of Nash Vegas, however. The latter, "The Pills Stopped Working," takes the country music to a rock edge with just a hint of blues. One can actually picture Joan Baez singing this song in her current incarnation. The band spreads itself out but not thin. The harmony vocals behind Ellyson are the reins of restraint that allow her to creep out on top of the edge, and Bob Hoffnar's pedal steel whines in the foreground and creeps to the background. There is grit, fresh hums, and mud in the lyrics and Ellyson sings them with an honesty that is unflinching; she never gives up hope. "Hotel Fire" and "Great Houses of New York" both slip into the late 19th century parlor for their inspiration; they're just gorgeously arranged and played with such elegance and restraint, they feel like songs that have been around since then. "I'll Dream of You Tonight," is a country love song full of such longing, lost on the road, lost in the company of strangers, lost in the company of an aching heart, that it can only take comfort in tomorrow and the assurance that love is waiting. Funnel Cloud is the site on the horizon, where what's here and now is beautiful and utterly serene, but what lies just behind the next cloud is a storm brewing so memory, loss, hope, desire, and the stillness of the present are all and everything there is. This is easily the band's finest outing to date; it shows that they have more ideas than can be contained in the space of a single recording. Get it.