Hem writes graceful, somber songs about missed trains, found moments, and private epiphanies. Over the course of a half-decade and three albums, the Brooklyn band (that oscillates between four and eight members) has mapped out lovely, languorous territories that ebb and flow, stretch and bend, and forever unfurl, always slowly. That landscape -- often dappled with pedal steel guitars, richly twinkling piano, and the gentle wonder of Sally Ellyson's voice casting a twilight tint over it all -- sounds at once sepia-tone ancient and as vital as a heartbeat, veined with blood and life.
Hem brought this world with it Saturday evening to Berklee's David Friend Recital Hall, a cozy (capacity 150) room that filled quickly and felt as intimate and secret as the songs. The group's 90-minute set began in a stately, scene-setting manner with the traditionalist, nearly a capella folk of ''The Golden Day Is Dying," from ''No Word From Tom," Hem's new collection of covers and rarities. Ellyson's dusky, elegant reading of the Tony Joe White classic ''Rainy Night in Georgia" (also from the new disc) was splendid, showcasing a voice like clouded glass, pure of mineral and heart but also a smoky, obfuscating thing that recalled the soulful gaze of Dusty Springfield and Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny. Ellyson didn't possess the mysterious charisma or windblown allure of those singers, but the songs did, and that was enough.
In fact, with its multi-layered, embroidered takes on old-time mountain music (''A-Hunting We Will Go"), courtly countrypolitan (''Jackson"), and folk that flickered like dark jewels (the new ''Reservoir"), Hem evoked a kind of Americanized Fairport Convention, brimming with wonder and quiet mastery. Ellyson was a comfortable, relaxed presence throughout, but the contributions of pianist/songwriter Dan Messe, especially, were plentiful, and lent the material earthy accents of gospel-dosed Southern soul.
Hem's Red House Painter-ly aspirations for its choice of covers did not translate as well. Whereas Mark Kozelek's Red House Painters -- a band similarly preoccupied with languor and melancholy -- dramatically rearranged songs by the likes of the Cars and Yes and turned the original arrangements on their proverbial ear, Hem's attempt at slowing R.E.M.'s ''So. Central Rain" to a dreary waltz-time ballad seemed merely that, and stripped the original of its fizzy pop jangle and sense of poignant urgency. Likewise, Fountains of Wayne's snarky ''Radiation Vibe" was profoundly ill-suited to Hem's hushed fortitude and antediluvian gravitas. As winking irony or lighthearted playfulness, the smart-alecky pop anthem was unconvincing, coming across like a Muzak evisceration by the Lawrence Welk Orchestra -- or even worse, a finger-snapping attempt at hipness by Steve and Eydie for the parlor set.