I Celebrate Their Entire Collection: HEM

[Welcome to the Second installment of “I Celebrate Their Entire Collection,” Stew Over’s feature on the bands we love.]

I was first introduced to HEM through an ad for Liberty Mutual. I concede that this is an odd place to discover a favorite band. It was through this commercial that I first heard the song “Half Acre,” and I immediately purchased HEM’s first album, Rabbit Songs. To this day the album remains one of my favorites to listen to from beginning to end; it is perfect to sit back and relax to. In fact, I like HEM so much that my wife and I chose one of their songs, “Dance With Me, Now Darling,” as the song for our first dance at our wedding.

“Alt-country.” What a terrible descriptor. Or “indie-folk,” which isn’t much better. That’s what we’re stuck with when describing HEM. I would never in a million years say I’m a big fan of alt-country or indie-folk, but I’ll tell you what, I love HEM. From the poetic writing of Dan Messe and Gary Maurer to the beautiful voice of Sally Ellyson, all of HEM’s music is near perfection. Most songs are quiet and reflective, using a variety of woodwinds and strings to fill in behind the vocals. HEM’s music is the perfect soundtrack for thinking about some of the more important things in life.

One of the main themes that runs through much of HEM’s music is the idea of home: the desire to return there, and how difficult it can be when you’re away from it. As I discuss their discography, you’ll notice I return to that theme over and over again. As an introduction to HEM, I urge you to take a quiet evening at home, put on Rabbit Songs, and see if you like it.

Rabbit Songs- June 11, 2002







Without a doubt, Rabbit Songs is my favorite HEM album. The album touches on many themes common in HEM’s music. “Half Acre” embodies the desire to carry part of home with you where you go.  “When I Was Drinking” deals with addiction and loss. I also have a deep appreciation for the instrumental “Burying Song.” The last track on the album is a quiet song titled “Horsey” that makes me nostalgic. There was a park near my house when I was growing up that neighborhood kids nicknamed “Horsey Park,” so I’m sure that’s why this song reminds me of my childhood. My favorite song on the album is “Leave Me Here,” an impossibly sad song filled with emotion that only Sally’s voice could fully portray.

Favorite Track: “Leave Me Here”

Eveningland- 2004






The most critically acclaimed HEM album is Eveningland, their sophomore effort. My wife and I found our first dance song for our wedding, “Dance With Me, Now Darling,” on this album, which of course is my favorite track. However, a lot of great songs are on Eveningland. This is my second favorite HEM album and really sounds great from start to finish. The title track, “Eveningland,” is another gorgeous instrumental. “The Beautiful Sea” shows off Sally’s voice to its fullest potential. HEM’s songs describe the different types of love we all experience, whether romantic, platonic, or familial. “Pacific Street” is a song that makes me think of my friends. HEM has said that the song is about their hometown, “This place where people are constantly leaving or coming to.” As Sally sings, “Stay where we are/ we’ll wash up at the corner bar / because leaving things is just too hard for me.” I can easily relate.

Favorite Track: “Dance With Me, Now Darling”

No Word From Tom- February 7, 2006






No Word From Tom is an album of covers, live songs, and some new recordings. As a result, the album as a whole feels disjointed. Although it’s my least favorite HEM album, there are still some great songs on the album. The full version of “Eveningland,” the live version of “Sailor,” and the demo version of “The Beautiful Sea” are my three favorites.

Favorite Track: “The Beautiful Sea”

Funnel Cloud- September 5, 2006







While not as strong as Rabbit Songs or Eveningland, Funnel Cloud is a great album. Prior to releasing the album, HEM released a series of podcasts previewing the songs. I thought this was incredibly cool, and I often  listen to these again instead of the album. The band gives some great insight into the creative process behind making the album. While I don’t enjoy the entire album as much as some others, there are some incredibly strong tracks. “We’ll Meet Along the Way” is a song about people who can’t be together but still love each other. “The Burnt-Over District” is another great instrumental. “In a Barrel at Sea,” the last track, speaks to the safety of finding someone you love to spend your life with. I love the imagery of the lines “Let the storms keep rising wherever I go / As long as you’re here with me.”

My favorite track on the album is “Reservoir.” As band member Steve Curtis explains during the podcast, the theme of home is important to the band, and this is his song about his hometown of Pittsburgh. I think it does a great job of describing how even when you are in a beautiful place it can never fully compare to your home. Steve says, “I’ve seen some splendid and awesome sights across the country and across the ocean. But this song is about those humblest images of home that are ultimately the most important to me.”

Favorite Track: “Reservoir”

Other Releases






HEM has released a number of EPs as well as singles and added tracks to compilations. One of my favorites is their cover of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Their version is possibly the saddest Christmas song of all time. My heart breaks every time I hear Sally sing “We’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Possibly my favorite HEM song is from their EP Home Again, Home Again. The song is “The Meeting Place,” and not surprisingly, it’s about love and home. The lyrics don’t specify who is loving whom, but when you hear “All the ships are lost on the river/ I’ll swing a light on the safest shore./ And it’s not okay /But it’s not too late / Cuz we’re not alone anymore,” does it matter? Everyone wants to find people from their family, friends, and love life who will love us when we need them most.

HEM’s next proper album, Departure and Farewell, is due to release in 2012. It’s been a long wait for a proper HEM album. I’ve never been able to catch them in concert, but I’m hoping they’ll come through Chicago to promote the new album. Their latest single, “Identical Snowflake,” is available now.

If you want to learn more about HEM or their lyrics, check out these links. All of HEM’s songs are available on iTunes and Spotify.



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