Album Reviews: No Word from Tom by HemThey are words that make diehard fans swoon and casual fans groan: "Outtakes, Covers, Demos, Live Recordings & Rarities." Such is the subtitle of Hem's No Word From Tom, an odds-and-sods collection that finds some new angles on old songs and reemphasizes the graceful beauty of the band's earlier studio recordings.
With only two albums under their belts -- 2001's Rabbit Songs and 2004's Eveningland -- it does seem a little premature for the band to be offering glimpses into the heady formative years, or pulling together "greatest hits" into a live context. And yet, as a stand-alone piece, No Word From Tom is plenty captivating. Taste may be subjective, but it's hard to imagine how anyone with a passion for American folk music would not be intrigued by Hem's country-kissed, orchestral brand of the genre.
Singer Sally Ellyson famously won a spot in the band by singing over the answering machine of her future bandmates. She's grown into better production values, but even amidst the studio gear and the lush arrangements, her voice has retained a crystalline purity that quietly demands attention. She is not a songwriter, per se; the band's ever-evocative ace in that department is Daniel Messé. It comes as little surprise, then, to see her interpretive powers shine on R.E.M.'s "South Central Rain" and Fountains of Wayne's "Radiation Vibe." The latter, especially, is the rare cover that is strikingly better than the original. Another lively highlight is the honky-tonk classic "Crazy Arms," which Hem play up to the boots-and-sawdust hilt.
But Ellyson, Messé and company don't need to hitchhike off others to impress. A number of the band's own songs, particularly from Rabbit Songs ("Betting On Trains," "Sailor," "Idle"), are brought to fruition in live settings. In addition to the easy listening pleasure it brings, No Word From Tom also suggests a blueprint for bands looking to translate complicated songs into more stripped-down live arrangements -- all without losing a lot of richness in sound. -- Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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