Last night at the Paradise, I sat in a metal folding chair along with about 75 other quiet, bookish types: middle-aged dads in golf shirts with their wives, college kids with trucker caps pulled over their eyes, a patch of hipsters, some hippies, and a gaggle of girls in American Eagle tanks all hunched low in their seats, blurry grins on their faces. A fashion show it was not.
HEM: Critical acclaim sans commercial success.
Hem are one of those freak bands who have benefitted from resounding critical acclaim without ever courting commercial success. They’ve been praised by big shots from the New York Times, and NPR’s All Songs Considered has pimped Hem’s traditionalist Americana to a worldly listenership for years now. Buzz, yes. Sales, no. That’s been due in part to bad timing — their gorgeous debut, Rabbit Songs, came out in 2001, when Britney’s abs were at their most toned. Why they’re still toiling in obscurity is harder to fathom now that indie-rock chicks like Jenny Lewis have proved you can be sexy, MTV-friendly, and still hang onto your indie cred. Just as Lewis’s fresh-linen singing voice is the highlight of Rilo Kiley, Sally Ellyson’s alt-country pipes are Hem’s most striking element. Her voice is all warm drizzles of maple syrup, sweet without the slickness, always going down easy.
Ellyson is an untrained singer without need of excessive oohs, ahhs, or show-offy belts. At the Paradise, she joked about being an egomaniac when, after Hem’s first song, she asked the tech to turn her mic up: this is a singer for whom even the most modest embellishment feels presumptuous. Hem’s tunes are written around the imperfect lilts and tones of Ellyson’s voice. And for good reason — she’s got the kind of unabashed confidence of the most attractive person in the room who has no idea how good-looking she is. If this was high school, you’d want to hate her for being so popular and talented, but you wouldn’t, because she’s doesn’t talk shit about anyone. Hem are from NYC but you imagine them playing on someone’s wraparound porch in Tennessee. Ellyson even throws in some genuine y’alls for good measure.
A slow-core, drugged-out version of Johnny & June’s “Jackson” had them at their best. The achingly pretty “Pacific Street,” a pedal-steel filled “Hollow,” and a bunch of songs from 2004’s Eveningland were all bright and twangy, and as comforting as a piece of velvet on your cheek. With Ellyson’s super-high cheekbones, fiery red hair, and pregnant belly, she reminded me of some kind of Earth Mother, reminding the cynical, sophisticated world how good love and a simpler life can be.
Karin Berquist of Over the Rhine dreamily noted early in the band’s opening set that she “likes letters” and that if you rearrange the ones in “Hem” and “OTR,” you can get the word “mother.” “I think that’s nice,” she insisted, wide-eyed over the low laughter. Berquist is a bevy of contradictions: an Emma Bunton ringer with her blonde pigtails and huge silver hoop earrings, she ends up coming off as a semi-sweetened country version of Baby Spice. Oh, and her voice? Beyoncé-butter without the R&B booty, injected with some of Fiona Apple’s raw vegan smoke. She practically purrs every word. No wonder that she doesn’t get ordinary song requests: at the Paradise some random dude in the front row handed her a long-stemmed red rose with a note rolled around it. Pattering back and forth on a rug laid out on stage, she was the most songwritery songwriter here, and her five-senses attack trumped Ellyson’s natural polish — even though Hem was what I’d come to hear. Berquist’s foil is guitarist/pianist/partner-in-crime/co-writer Linford Detweiler, who looks exactly like Fred Jones but happens to be an incredible instrumentalist. The spotlight, though, was made for Karin. “Born” has that hair-on-your-arms-raising-quality, and “Five O’Clock Shadow” was probably sensual enough to eventually wow the pants off of some of the couples gripping hands.
“Thanks for staying out late on a Monday,” Ellyson said as she and Hem wrapped things up. Already I’m watching her through pleasantly slitted eyes, wishing I had a pillow. It’s nearly Tuesday. The week’s not yet half over. But thanks to Birquist and Ellyson, my mind is filled with adult-sanctioned lullabies about fireflies, lakeside romances, and sunlit fields of blooming corn — and despite the no air-conditioning plus my neighbors blasting Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance” on repeat, I’ll be sleeping the sleep of a righteous Southern belle after her first cotillion.