Hem's debut album, Rabbit Songs, was so unassuming that it took a couple of years for people to find it. At that point, word begin spreading about the curious New York alt-country band that was more interested in lushly orchestrated lullabies than twang-and-stomp. The "Hey, have you heard Hem?" campaign is still a slow-roller, but that's probably how it should be. Bands like Hem, and albums like Hem's third, Funnel Cloud, are meant to be passed from person to person and played to tatters by those who need them most.
Funnel Cloud opens in typical Hem fashion, with tinkling piano and Sally Ellyson's high, breathy voice singing "We'll Meet Along The Way," a happy sentiment that she recasts as a regretful goodbye. The band later picks up the tempo a few times, on the prelude-to-a-crisis ballad "Too Late To Turn Back Now" and the traditionalist country-rock song "The Pills Stopped Working." But most of Funnel Cloud stays in a lush, dreamy vein, as though Hem was trying to craft new pop standards for nightclubs that closed down 40 years ago.
The band's preference for slowness and smoothness saps the energy from songs like "Old Adam" and "Not California," which play like roots music with the roots snipped off. They're pretty, but almost featureless. At the same time, the slick surfaces of the cinematic instrumental "The Burnt-Over District" and the theatrical "I'll Dream Of You Tonight" are a large part of their charm, so it's hard to fault Hem for covering every surface with the same light gloss. As Ellyson proves when she expresses the full-body shock of new love on "He Came To Meet Me," it's possible to be polished and emotional.