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Hem

Departure & Farewell – 2013 (Redeye)

Reviewed by Brian Baker

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Over the past decade and a half, there has been a beautiful dichotomy in Hem's music. The Brooklyn quartet has consistently offered up an enchanting and elegant blend of folk, country and chamber pop that is somehow all of those things and none of them at the same time. That intoxicating mixture has made Hem difficult to pinpoint in a stylistic sense but for anyone with an open mind and an eclectic ear, they have become an easy band to love.

Hem's new album, the ominously-titled "Departure and Farewell," was created in the tumultuous 7-year gap since 2006's "Funnel Cloud," a period that has seen front man Dan Messe's battle with a prescription medication addiction and the end of guitarist Stephen Curtis' 15-year marriage. Messe's problem loomed largest for the band, as Curtis, guitarist/producer Gary Maurer and vocalist Sally Ellyson had ceased communicating with him; thankfully, Messe's recovery helped catalyze the healing process and the band finished "Departure and Farewell," which may stand as their most ambitious and magnificent creation to date.

Against a dark backdrop of loss and dysfunction, Hem has crafted an exquisitely melancholy set of songs that illuminates all that they've done well (the quietly epic title track, the folk pop lilt of Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard, featuring a rare double tracking of Ellyson's gorgeous vocals) while skirting some interesting new sonic territory (the New Orleans-tinged Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing, the gospel-fired So Long, the Randy Newman/Van Dyke Parks Dixiecana feel of Traveler's Song).

With "Departure and Farewell," as with so many previous albums, Hem has magnified and glorified the intersecting sweet spot of their love for distinctly American music, swelling orchestral string arrangements and the tricky craft of writing songs that are both intensely personal and universally identifiable.