Hem at Iota: Finding Beauty in the Ballads

Hem's most powerful instrument is Sally Ellyson's voice.
Hem's most powerful instrument is Sally Ellyson's voice. (By John Pamer)
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

It was an abridged version of Hem that performed at Iota Monday night, with only six members -- three fewer than are listed on the band's new album, "No Word From Tom," and a full string section short of the lineup that appeared last week at Lincoln Center in New York. Minus violin and glockenspiel, the Brooklyn group tilted a bit more country than on its recordings, with pedal steel and mandolin among the dominant timbres. Hem's central instrument, however, is Sally Ellyson's voice, whose immaculate clarity has no provision for twang.

Although "No Word From Tom" is a collection of outtakes, covers and other rarities rather than new material, the musicians highlighted the disc as if it were all their own. They opened with a "Tom" song, the folk standard "The Golden Day Is Dying," and played several other ones, including R.E.M.'s "So. Central Rain" (probably better known as "I'm Sorry''). Yet pride of place went to material from 2004's sumptuous "Eveningland," including "The Fire Thief" and "Pacific Street," the latter introduced by keyboardist-songwriter Dan Messe as the story of how he and Ellyson met.

At first, it seemed rash for Hem to dispense quickly with "Radiation Vibe," a Fountains of Wayne song that's among "Tom's" punchier numbers. But the band didn't structure its set to build, ending with the traditional brace of rockers. Instead, Hem stood its mid-tempo ground, playing one rueful ballad after another. The result was a show that didn't get livelier, just lovelier.

-- Mark Jenkins

© 2006 The Washington Post Company