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Eveningland (Rounder)

Hem came out of left field in 2001 with Rabbit Songs, an album of gentle, pastoral Americana that seemingly had no equal: too beautiful for alt-country and too subtly heartbreaking to be rock & roll. Singer Sally Ellyson fronts this band of studio dwellers, and Hem's attempt to create "a new American music" is still dependent on her pure, wispy voice.

Though not a songwriter, Ellyson is a great interpreter of other people's songs -- the Internet-only covers EP I'm Talking With My Mouth, with stellar passes at songs by Randy Newman and Bruce Springsteen, is the surest sign of her prowess. For Eveningland, songwriter/ pianist Dan Messé has written songs that maintain Ellyson's china-doll delivery while removing the glass case; songs like the haunting "Hollow" give more bite than the fragility of Hem's earlier work. Likewise, this record benefits from the increased use of background vocals, and Josh Rouse makes a seamless addition to the album-closing "Carry Me Home." Things pick up toward the end of the album, and "Pacific Street" hones in on the late-summer-twilight sound that graces Hem's best work (the album title itself evokes the same starlit quality).

In an attempt to bolster its mostly acoustic sound, Hem pulled out the oldest trick in the rock & roll playbook: the Slovak National Radio Orchestra. While the SNRO may not have the clout of the London Philharmonic, the outfit's supple strings and earthy clarinets give a new context to the band. With this continued evolution, Eveningland marks a move away from sounding like a well-preserved antiquity toward becoming a vital, if unconventional, musical wellspring.

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