Hem: No Word from Tom

When the Carpenters were listed as an influence on Hem’s previous album, Eveningland, I braced myself for a sophomore slump.

The band’s debut album, Rabbit Songs, was my favorite album of 2002, and it was so good, I instantly wanted a second album. Eveningland arrived, and I found myself … not as mesmerized.

(Reviews for both albums are available at archive.musicwhore.org.)

When news came down that No Word from Tom would contain outtakes, live recordings and b-sides, I thought it would be scattershot. As it turned out, the album’s clarity is threaded by its adventurous choices.

Tony Joe White’s "Rainy Night in Georgia" and "The Tennessee Waltz" are obvious choices for the band’s self-described "alt-country, pop-rock orchestral lullabies for adults" sound.

Ellyson sings out of her range on "Rainy Night in Georgia", giving it a rough feel. It’s the very first time Hem played together with all its members present.

The groups heightens the country influence of R.E.M.’s "So. Central Rain" to wonderful effect, while Fountains of Wayne’s "Radiation Vibe" feels like an oddly natural choice.

Placed alongside live versions of the band’s own music, these covers demonstrate Hem’s writing can stand up alongside established pop pieces.

"The Beautiful Sea" is a gentle song with a strong backbone. "Sailor" basks in hushed beauty, while "Betting on Trains" undergoes a dramatic transformation to become more contemplative.

Original outtakes take up the least amount of real estate on the album. "The Present" would sound at home on either of the previous albums, whereas "Oh No" has a timelessness that makes it sound traditional.

The extended version of "Eveningland" makes better sense than what eventually appeared on its namesake album.

No Word from Tom is a forceful album from such a quiet band. Rather than sounding like a mish-mash of odds and ends, the album demonstrates the Hem’s willingness to recast not only their own material but the songs of others.

As a result, what should have been just random bits from the Hem’s periphery becomes a solid statement of its aesthetic.