American chamber music

“Chamber music” refers to a specific type of classical music performed by a small ensemble in a concert hall or theater.

But the spirit of chamber music lies in its original purpose — to entertain amateur musicians who wanted to perform at home among friends.

If that’s the case, Hem’s debut album Rabbit Songs is chamber music — in both the modern and historical sense. It’s also the most beautiful album of 2002.

Hem formed in 1999 when keyboardist Dan Messé and producer/guitarist Gary Maurer set out to record an album influenced by traditional American music. After drafting Steve Curtis on guitar and mandolin, the trio placed an ad in the Village Voice for a singer and found Sally Ellyson.

As the band recorded Rabbit Songs, Messé sold his own possessions to fund the sessions, allowing the group to add strings, woodwinds and percussion to its music.

What results is an album as intimate as four people gathered around a campfire with a guitar, but as lush as a recital by an eight-piece classical ensemble.

On “Half Acre”, Messé keeps the band in time with an insistent piano rhythm, while mandolin, clarinet, violin and cello weave in and out behind Ellyson’s warm singing.

“Burying Song,” a folk-like tune arranged for winds, piano and strings, would fit well on a concert hall program.

“All That I’m Good For” and “Idle (The Rabbit Song)” feel like a standard pop tunes complete with a rhythm section, but the small string orchestra give these tracks an extra push.

Even at its most symphonic, Hem never loses its intimacy. The band is smart enough not to let all the instruments speak at one time, creating a sonic tapestry uncommon where orchestral arrangments are involved.

Ellyson’s inviting voice also grounds the band’s music, her quiet, unassuming delivery a magnet onto itself. Think Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmis, only awake.

Hem is a study in constrasts — timeless but timely, simple but complex, accomplished but warm — and Rabbit Songs is chamber music in the purest sense of the term.