Joe Henry – Blood From Stars

January 01, 1970



Joe Henry’s Blood From Stars is a blues-soaked, dreamscape
narrative. It goes in and out of focus with oddball keyboard samples lurking
underneath the surface and many of its songs bleeding into one another creating
a kind of mysterioso continuity. Confirming Henry’s sense of drama is the
reference to his band as the “cast” in the recording’s credits as if they’re
characters in a play or film. The album’s caterers also get credit! Speaking of
his approach to recording these songs, Henry says, “I can always go back to
what I thought [the songs should sound like], but if you limit them to your own
imagination, then you’re just cutting yourself off from the richest resource
you have.” In this respect, Henry is like a confident and open-minded director
who has a good shooting script but encourages input from the actors during
principal photography. BFS also employs a dramatic arc of form in that
it closes with the same scene it opened with, but viewed from a different
angle. This is a very solid recording from a confident artist.  


BFS is a bit more
abstract and varied than Henry’s previous Civilians but is coming from
essentially the same place. The forms feel a little looser and the vibe is a
bit more spontaneous with its edges being creatively frayed. Its texture is
grittier but more refined at the same time – as if Henry’s getting a clear
vision of something cloudy as opposed to a cloudy vision of something clear.
His song forms are still straight forward but the styles within them (blues,
jazz standards, rock, near-cabaret) are varied and infused with an innate and
idiosyncratic theatricality – one filled with ornate and personally meaningful
static images substituting for a traditional linear storyline. The idea of
“story” is a big thing for Henry, but his concept tends more toward the poetic
than prose. Gradually becoming more abstract is a natural path for many
artists. While Civilians is almost like a “sophisticated/urban” version
of The Band, BFS is like a cleaned up, near housebroken Tom Waits album.
Those comparisons are meant as compliments to all involved.


Blues is the connecting thread through BFS. And not just
instrumentally, but lyrically as well: “I was intrigued by how structured and
how simple those ideas of, say, a pair of repeating lines answered by a refrain
can be,” Henry says of the blues, citing Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and
e.e. Cummings as influences. While his lyrics do occasionally use this
traditional call and response, he also allows himself to become more abstracted
and deals with large issues of love, death, war, and faith in sometimes rather
oblique and poetic ways. Two examples of Henry’s beautiful writing: “Scratched
in the sand like some secret cure/Oh, this is a beautiful war to be sure/A
surrendering hero’s name will be sung/When all else has failed and the battle
feared won,” (from “This Is My Favorite Cage”), and, “And freedom doesn’t need
to be free when it sells/Like ocean waves offered from inside shells/We bet the
farm trying to ring its bells/But love still goes for a song,” (from “Progress
Of Love”). The record is consistently filled with writing this good.


Much of the same band from Civilians returns here for BFS.
The ace rhythm section of keyboardist Patrick Warren, bassist David Piltch, and
percussionist Jay Bellerose are still present, and jazz pianist Jason Moran
makes a splendid, featured cameo in the opening track. Replacing Bill Frisell
in the guitar chair is Marc Ribot. Wildly adept at all kinds of styles and
textures, Ribot is arguably responsible for much of BFS‘s initial sonic
impression and its connection to Tom Waits’s sound. Ribot also shows us his
considerable, and somewhat rarely heard old-school jazz cornet chops. But more
than anything it’s Henry’s voice that leaves the lasting impression. His style
is so quirky and intentionally un-restrained as to be almost speaking instead
of singing at times. This gives him an everyman quality and endears him immediately
to some, while possibly being off-putting to others who are slow in accepting
difference. He comes across as your likeable, eccentric and outspoken uncle. Or
maybe like a more poetic, less blue collar version of Rocky Balboa: rough
around the edges, untrained, all heart, and just scrappy enough to pull off the
fight of the century. BFS is a great record.


Standout Tracks: “This
Is My favorite Cage,” “Suit On A Frame” JOHN DWORKIN            



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