Rags to records

Dan Messe sells out for art and gets a hauntingly beautiful album in return

by Nathan Hall

Good art always requires great sacrifice.

Dan Messe, founder of New York-based, alt-country outfit Hem, knows the truth of that adage all too well. Messe recently sold virtually everything he owned in order to get his debut record, “Rabbit Songs,” done exactly the way he wanted it, 18-piece orchestra and all.

Happily, Messe’s reckless gamble paid off with dividends to spare. Originally released on the modest New Jersey-based indie label Bar None Records, the album caught the ear of Mark Everett of the Eels. Everett’s enthusiastic praises immediately convinced his corporate bosses to rerelease it as part of a comfy long-term contract between Hem and DreamWorks. The band, which was assembled by placing ads in the back of “Village Voice,” recently landed a coveted spot as opener for Vic Chestnutt’s latest tour. Messe even went and did some shopping.

In sharp contrast to the happy-go-lucky, fairytale rise of the group, the album itself remains one of the bleakest and distressingly mournful odes to contemporary American aesthetics in recent memory. Lead singer Sally Ellyson’s spare, down-to-earth lullabies for love lost, accompanied by old-time mandolin and standup bass, are both simultaneously unnerving and comforting.

The record was produced by Gary Maurer, who made a name for himself with slick-sounding records for Luna and Fountains of Wayne. Here, he thankfully resists the urge to fiddle around with Pro Tools and just lets the songs speak for themselves, perhaps best evidenced on the standout track “When I Was Drinking.”

“When I was drinking/when I was with you/living it up when the rent was due/with nothing and no one to live up to.” These lyrics perfectly encapsulate Messe’s latest quandary: Why do you only seem to record the good stuff when you’re dead broke?

Hem will perform at 8 p.m. Monday at the 400 Bar. Leona Naess opens. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more information call (612) 332-2903.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]