ONE MAN’S REVERIE… Joe Henry

…equals
one nation’s ecstasy. With his latest album, the acclaimed producer also raises
the bar for his fellow songwriters.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Joe Henry has really great hair. He’s got the kind of
natural locks that look sculpted from the pompadours of Presley and Morrissey,
but with the product-free insouciance of early Westerberg and Richards. So,
yes, there it is, my Henry Hair Envy exposed. My point is: Henry’s songwriting
towers over even that awesome ‘do of his.

 

Over a dozen releases of varied sonic shades – Dust Bowl
folk and old school murder ballads, alt-country rockers and Tin Pan Alley
balladry, opium den trip-hop and jazz combo-noir – the
Charlotte-born/Detroit-raised Henry’s songs are completely current but suited
to almost any era. He might not be a household name, but musicians from across
the spectrum know what’s what. That’s how he’s been able to land T Bone Burnett
to produce 1990’s Shuffletown (his
second release on A&M, and third overall); tab the Jayhawks as his backing
band, with whom he had toured, for his next two albums); or roust alto-sax
giant Ornette Coleman out of hibernation to play with him (on 2001’s Scar). Then there are all those
production credits, including Grammy winning LPs for Solomon Burke (Best Blues
Album, 2002) and the Carolina Chocolate Drops (Best Traditional Folk Album,
2010).

 

Why Henry? Because he has most of the attributes we associate
with the best songwriters: simple and direct minor-key melodies carefully
crafted to highlight his distinct, cracked vocals, which bend and crack over
vowels like he was breaking open words to get at their emotional core, and
judicious arrangements that allow his hired hands (including some of the better
sessions players going) enough space to lay out or fill as the song commands.

 

***

 

And then, of course, the stories. Welcome 2011’s Reverie, recently released on tastemaker
label Anti-.

 

Henry’s lyrics have frequently scanned autobiographically,
digging expertly into human frailty, desire, lust, resignation or desperation.
But he paints such a rich assortment of complex characters that it’s difficult
to determine where Henry ends and they begin; it’s also irrelevant to the songs’
enjoyment. Whether he’s divined his own motivations using vivid metaphors;
recounted caudillo and Yanqui corruption from a maid’s point of
view; plumbed the genius and character defects of Charlie Parker or Richard
Pryor; narrated in slow motion-horror an air show plane crash or a dope
addict’s descent; or described in vivid detail the waning arc of an illicit
romance, Henry’s songs point unflinchingly to the gray truths that color us
all.

 

They also typically provide a platform for what he titled
one of his records after: the Tiny Voices. Everyman music, in other words, but
the type that finds the little-known everyman even in our culture’s best-known
personalities. And because of that ability, Henry’s narratives provide rich and
almost constant sustenance, found here in tracks about Billy the Kid (the
country-blues “Deathbed Version”) or the suicide of Vic Chesnutt (the gentle
guitar-and-voice “Room at Arles,” with its heartbreaking line “every song I’ve
ever sung has been a song for going”).

 

What’s different this time is the recording process, which
was something new for Henry. Put to tape with a core of longtime accomplices
including pianist Keefus Ciancia, Jay Bellerose on drums, bassist David Piltch,
and the incomparable guitarist Marc Ribot (and featuring cameos by Patrick
Warren, Jean McLain, and Lisa Hannigan), much of Reverie was laid down in Henry’s living room studio with the
windows thrown wide. That allowed for the quotidian – barking dogs, passing
cars, etc. – to sift seamlessly into the mix and heighten the organic flavor of
the recording. It also suits the songs’ loose feel, which tilts gently away
from the lounge-y jazz-combo flavors of some of his recent work and back toward
his folk-rock beginnings. But pigeon-holing it as either is equally pointless.

 

 


Joe Henry – Sticks & Stones by antirecords

 

Most importantly, the loose-limbed tempos match Henry’s
conflicted lyrics, which trace the slippery nature of time and memory with a
portraitist’s telling eye. “After the War,” for instance, with its
Ellington-flavored piano lines, could’ve been one of those melancholic World
War II ballads celebrating the fading-but-never-disappearing memory of a
war-time romance. With help from Hannigan’s soaring harmonies on the choruses,
the gorgeous gospel-country of “Odetta” finds the reflective narrator seeking
“some new world reverie” that could prove as inspirational as the titular
character’s music. On “Grand Street,” over a marching snare and walking bass
that Ciancia fleshes out with spidery piano chords, Henry’s details – “(I) sat
on the steps like a kid/polished my boot/on the back of my calf/and smoked like
it was something I did” – capture a young suitor’s confidence and fear with
imagery a filmmaker would admire.

 

And as far as the vicissitudes of love are concerned, few
tap into the siren song of pleasure/desperation better. The dramatic tango
“Strung” is visceral accompaniment for lyrics that depict the helplessness of
obsession: “The God of all truth, of darkness and sleep/Plays like the arc of a
lamp and for keeps/Dancing with fury, heat in both hands/And welds me to you in
the place where I stand.” On “Unspeakable,” while Ribot and Ciancia weave
beautiful lines over Bellerose’s snapping snare, Henry sings “Your time winds
around me/I’m bound to the mast/That pushes ahead/And howls in my past–/Giving
full throat to/what once was mine alone.”

 

On the sinister blues “Dark Tears,” the Henry secret is
revealed, but in typically understated fashion — “Sometimes words escape
me/But there’s a rhythm to all we know,” he sings. That’s the modesty and
humility typically missing in all those acclaimed geniuses. But it’s precisely
what allows Henry access to the truths that make his songs unforgettable.

 

[Photo Credit: Lauren Dukoff]

 

 

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