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REVIEW: Hem: Rabbit Songs
8.18.2002 by Sean

Hem: Rabbit Songs [Bar None/Waveland, 2002] ( mp3s)

Three words? Songs like Home.

Rabbit Songs' center is in the thirty-eighth second of the tenth track,"Lazy Eye". "I can still see the hem of your dress / and the comb as its parting your hair," sings Sally Ellyson in her creamy voice, the melody playing over violin and piano like the smile that plays on Mary Poppins' lips. In those short moments, there's an aligning, a sliding into place, a sudden coherence. There's a lilt as we hear the word "hem", and the listener is centered... These are beautiful songs, yes, but their beauty is neither vapid nor dazzling; it's the cool catharsis of freshwater, a rejuvenating embrace.

I don't know what it is about that phrase - a note of intelligence, of
sophistication? Whatever it is, it gives the album somewhere to settle - it shows it to be wise and self-aware. It's not simply pretty: it's meant to be lovely, and to inspire love.

With hope and heart, Ellyson's voice is the centerpiece for all of these songs save the instrumentals, a silken mouthpiece for the light and lyrical words by pianist Dan Messé. They're joined on acoustic guitars and mandolin by Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer, both of whom have songwriting credits on a couple of the sixteen songs, and others occasionally contribute with drums, bass and violin. The album opens with a perfect, jazz-tinged ditty, Ellyson singing without adornment or flourish: "the bed is too small for my tired head / bring me a hill soft with trees / tuck a cloud up under my chin / lord, blow the moon out please". "When I Was Drinking" starts the music in earnest, other instruments joining in, a twang lingering under slow-sawed
violin and an end-of-the-day trudge by piano and guitar. A country
influence is present throughout Rabbit Songs, but it arises in muted tones; Hem allies itself with the American folk tradition seen on Gillian Welch's Time... Ellyson is like Nina Nastasia in white.

"Half Acre" leaves an unassuming, farmland guitar under oceanic swirls of violin, Ellyson's voice arcing higher and higher with each verse. Clarinet murmurs like birdsong, strings swell... "Every hour the hearts were broken / every night the fear and darkness lay down with us." "Burying Song", one of the album's three instrumentals, is pleasant but unremarkable: like incidental music for a film. "Betting on Trains", which follows, sends up a melody that, if not scaled back at precisely the right moments, might ascend into the overdone realm of Chantal Kreviazuk or Barbra Streisand. This is a danger throughout the album - until that turning point in "Lazy Eye" - that things might be reduced to the pretty.

This isn't really a crime, I suppose, but wallpaper never moves the soul, and the unabashed loveliness of Ellyson's voice seems to demand material that will set hearts aflame, not set mouths into short-lasting smiles.

Later on the disc, "Sailor" channels Sarah McLachlan with its understated piano-and-horns arrangement. Strings and the quiet ringing of bells fill out the sound, rendering it lush and sad. "Night Like a River" is a more confident return to trad.country, picked mandolin over pedal steel and a Neko Case croon. The chorus is rousing - notable for the presence of drums - as voices unite to belt out: "And I could live / a long, long while / on the sweetness of / her breath," barnyard violin like the grinning old man at the back of the hall. A traditional bluegrass number, "The Cuckoo", follows - toe-tapping mountain song over fiddle and deft mandolin-work.

Nothing on Rabbit Songs is abrasive, nothing rough. It's all smooth, sanded edges - warm arms, soft hair. Though things shift from folk to light country to alt.something, the genres blur and it's simply the album's beauty - its welcoming, smiling, restorative shine - that binds it together. While not a masterpiece, Rabbit Songs is a potent and wonderful salve. Hem has made an album that feels like home.

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