Music: ‘Tom’ offers subtle, quiet sounds

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    Quite simply, Hem’s latest release, “No Word From Tom” is a wonderfully satisfying record.”Tom” may be just a collection of rarities, covers and live tracks, but from beginning to end it plays as pleasing as a studio album.

    Opening with lead vocalist Sally Ellyson’s haunting acapella take on “All the Pretty Horses,” “Tom” leads directly into “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a track made famous by Brooke Benton. Hem’s take is much more subdued, as if it’s trying hard not to drown out the sound of the rain on the window, but it works brilliantly.

    Moving from old soul to bright indie-pop, Hem reworks Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe,” eschewing the sunny pop of the original for a more rollicking country beat.

    The highlight of “Tom,” though, is the live take of “Idle (The Rabbit Song)” originally on Hem’s 2001 debut release “Rabbit Songs.” Midway through the track, the music softens before bursting out in one final coda.

    Also pleasing is “Oh No,” which features a sing-along chorus and catchy melody.

    The only misstep of the album is the cover of R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain.” Michael Stipe and the gang used to bury the vocals in the mix – and they did it for a good reason. The repetitive refrain of “I’m sorry” in the chorus drags on to the listener. Of course, it speaks to the quality of the band when their original material is stronger than the classic tracks.

    What makes “No Word From Tom” such an excellent record is the way everything comes together. As a whole, the album is soothing and well-orchestrated, but a deeper listen reveals that every part of the album, from the subtle musical shades to Ellyson’s captivating, enigmatic vocals, “Tom” is beautifully executed.

    Hailing from New York, Hem often draws comparisons to fellow female-fronted alt-country tunesmiths Cowboy Junkies. Unlike the Junkies, however, Hem has no problem delving into classic Nashville country, which is especially evident on covers of “Tennessee Waltz” and “Crazy Arms.”

    Beyond the “countrypolitan” feel of some tracks, Hem shows a range for rootsy material more reminiscent of Gillian Welch or her collaborator, David Rawlings.

    The strength of “Tom” is its subtle versatility. While the core of the music remains the same, there’s a change in the attitude of each track that goes well beyond the alt-country label. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a late-night drive; it’s quiet enough to think over, but not subdued enough to put the listener to sleep.