January 12, 2005

Hem/The Autumn Defense "Birds, Beasts, and Flowers"

I’ve always approached split singles with a bit of trepidation. What happens when there’s a REALLY GREAT band on one side and a totally unknown act on the other? There are quite a few split releases in my collection that have or will only ever be listened to in part, simply because one half of the record isn’t any good. It’s not fair to look at splits with such a critical eye, though; sometimes that little, unknown band is simply trying to get some bigger recognition, or perhaps the two bands are trying to get their music heard but can’t afford to release something by themselves. Sometimes, though, magic happens, and the two artists come together and produce something wonderful.

Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which features Hem and The Autumn Defense, seves as excellent proof of what good can come from a split single. Hem’s received a great deal of critical acclaim over the last few years, and rightly so; their debut album Rabbit Songs was a critical and lyrical masterpiece, which landed them very briefly on Dreamworks. For this release, they’ve offered up one new song, “St. Charlene,” a beautiful, country-tinged folk number that effortlessly highlights the beauty that is lead singer Sally Ellyson’s voice, which at times sounds as if it’s equal parts Emmylou Harris and Karen Carpenter. For their other selections, they offer up two live tracks—“Half Acre,” from Rabbit Songs and “Pacific Street,” from their new album, Eveningland. Unlike the rich, baroque-pop of their albums, in a live setting both songs are stripped down to the bare minimum, which only serves to greater highlight Ellyson’s powerful singing voice.

Due to the overwhelming greatness of Hem’s three tracks, the Autumn Defense, which consists of Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, face some stiff competition for your attention. They received a fair bit of praise for their simple, late-60s era Beach Boys-style for their most recent album Circles. Their three songs here are a continuation of that trend; even though they come in second behind the wonderful Hem. Their three songs are pretty, Seventies-inspired LA country rock. Though “Bluebirds Fall” and “You Know Where I Live” are pretty, they’re simply nice and nothing more. Their most engaging offering here is the closing instrumental “Mayday.” It’s simple, jazzy and pretty, and it utilizes the vibraphone in a really nice way; indeed, it sounds not unlike Friends-era Beach Boys.

The decision to alternate the track listing between both bands was a wise one; in so doing, it makes the record feel more like a collaborative effort than simply two bands offering three songs. Though Birds, Beasts and Flowers is a simple, all-too-brief affair, and though on the surface it might not be all that fulfilling, if you’re wanting an introduction to both bands—or simply twenty minutes of beautiful, relaxing music--then this release is perfect.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.rabbitsongs.com
Artist Website: http://www.theautumndefense.com
Artist Website: http://www.arenarockrecordingco.com

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