Joe Henry

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Talk Of Heaven, 6/10
A Murder Of Crows, 6/10
Shuffletown , 7/10
Short Man's Room , 6.5/10
Kindness Of The World , 6/10
Trampoline , 7/10
Fuse (1998), 6/10
Scar , 6.5/10
Tiny Voices (2003), 6/10
Civilians (2007), 5/10
Blood From Stars (2009) , 6.5/10
Reverie (2011), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Joe Henry, born in North Carolina, raised in Michigan and become a singer songwriter in New York before relocating to Los Angeles, boasted the nasal register of Bob Dylan, a narrative talent that excels at realistic stories of provincial life, and, last but not least, an eclectic style that allows his songs to span the entire arc of USA tradition.

Henry debuted with Talk Of Heaven (Profile, 1986), but had to wait till A Murder Of Crows (A&M, 1989 - Mammoth, 1993) before critics noticed him.

He wore the clothes of the intellectual for Shuffletown (Coyote, 1990), that boasted much more sophisticate arrangements: the backing band featured guitarist T-Bone Burnett, jazz musicians Don Cherry (trumpet), Cecil McBee (bass) and Phil Kelly (piano) and veteran country musicians David Mansfield (mandolin) and Michael Blair (drums). The album has several souls. Latin guitar and tiptoeing percussion propel the anthemic Don McLean-ian refrain of Helena by the Avenue. This is the loose and exotic soul, also on display in the syncopated Easter. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the austere and elegant soul that manifests itself in the neoclassical waltz Spent It All, in Ben Turpin In The Army, basically a chamber lied for guitar and violin, in Drowning in the River Half Laughing, a hymn for piano, violin and contrabass. Psychology and choreography go hand in hand in the songs that exude a sense of loneliness and emptiness, notably the agonizing elegy Shuffletown, which is lively compared with the spartan drum-less Land, with a peak of tender pathos in the gospel-ish shout of Date for Church, a call whose response is a spectral trumpet.

Thanks to the Jayhawks (that play the role the Band played with Dylan) and to Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum on guitar, Short Man's Room (Mammoth, 1992) moved towards a sunnier sound. The outcome is generally closer to Dylan's folk-rock of the mid 1960s (Good Fortune, Sault Sainte Marie) and to the calm gospel-rock of the Band (Stations) than to the intellectual style of the previous album. Reckless Child, the breezy Best to Believe and especially the anthemic King's Highway are permeated by a more traditional and sincere country feeling. The intimate singalongs of Last One Out and A Friend To You too subscribe to a rural aesthetic. At the same time the severe tales of Short Man's Room and One Shoe On (a dying man's soliloquy) acquire the depth of philosophical parables.

The mellow country sound of Kindness Of The World (Mammoth, 1993) concealed a bleak human panorama. One Day When the Weather Is Warm, Third Reel, I Flew over Our House Last Night and the seven-minute rhapsody Buck Dancer's Choice compose a monotonous parade of existential tragedies, with peaks of tender intimacy in She Always Goes and Kindness Of The World. The music is left in the background, extroverted only in the waltzing This Close To You, in the Dylan-ian Fireman's Wedding, and in the raw and loud Dead To The World, a sudden tribute to Neil Young's neurosis.

Trampoline (Mammoth, 1996) changed course again, adopting a poppy sound and a hard-rocking guitar for stories hijacked by surreal humor. Hence the vibrant Bob & Ray and Go with God, which are the exact opposite of the monotonous country litanies of the previous album. This new stance yields the hypnotic shuffle Ohio Air Show Plane Crash, the distorted cacophonous blues-rock jam Let Me Have It All, and Trampoline (with melody and vibrato a` la Crimson And Clover). The new face of Henry's music is also epitomized by the bizarre arrangements of Flower Girl (cello, noise, mellotron, sample of opera singers) and Medicine (electronics, funereal horns, dissonance, guitar feedback) The plaintive ballad I Was a Playboy even indulges in strings and horns. This eclectic poutpourri of ideas definitely abandoned the stereotypes of folk and country music.

Fuse (Mammoth, 1998) merely completed the transformation begun with Trampoline. A new Joe Henry delivered smoky, nocturnal, depressed songs arranged with an arsenal of electronica, programmed drumming, tape manipulation and sampling, and varnished with a sleek production. A funk-jazz flavor is suddenly prominent, especially in the lounge shuffle Angels, in the languid elegy Fat and in the easy-listening instrumental Curt Flood. Henry's is now an art of metaphorical (rather than literal) storytelling, that continuously reinvents itself. The calm neurosis of Monkey, the solemn apathy of Fuse, the funereal tenderness of Beautiful Hat and especially the erotic suspense of Like She Was a Hammer (in a sophisticated soul-rock style) are all different and all the same. Even the unabashed pop sellout of Skin and Teeth and the baroque ballad Want Too Much (with sax and strings) show the uncanny skill of saying more than the words and the notes would grant.

Scar (Mammoth, 2001) continues along the same trajectory, further enriching Henry's sound with subtle instrumental passages and charging his voice with existential angst. The stories are now mere pretexts for intriguing musical pastiches. Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation is a dejected Tom Waits-ian blues with chamber orchestra, wailing guitar and delirious saxophone. Waits' spectre also hovers over the nocturnal elegy of Lock And Key (with a drunken piano paraphrasing the Beatles' Yesterday).
The cha-cha steps that propel Stop (the one that his sister-in-law Madonna sang as Don't Tell Me) are sabotaged by western twang and gypsy violin.
Strings float around the tender whine of Struck, and, despite the synthetic beat, lend it a funereal feeling (enhanced by a mournful Spanish guitar).
Even simplicity can be misleading: the "simple" lament of Cold Enough To Cross relies on a sprightly piano tinkling and humble horns worthy of a Salvation Army band. The closing Scar is a solemn hymn paced by banging drums and gospel keyboards.
The variety of styles, from the swinging Rough And Tumble (sung in a Bob Marley-ish register) to the trivial pop-jazz of Mean Flower is unmatched since the times of Randy Newman.
On these songs, Henry's songwriting skills are negligible: what matters are the sounds. Each song is a complex sonic artefact/artifice (rarely clocking at less than four minutes) that explores the psychology of surreal characters. Henry's attention to detail and atmosphere is improving over the years.

The lush arrangements had been progressively moving the center of mass away from the words and towards the sounds. The backing band (drummer Jay Bellerose, guitarist Chris Bruce, saxophonist/clarinetist Don Byron, bassist Jennifer Condos, trumpeter Ron Miles, pianists Dave Palmer and Patrick Warren) stole the show on Tiny Voices (Anti, 2003), his jazziest album yet. The sprightly Latin-funk-jazz fusion of This Afternoon is the launching pad, but most of the album sinks in swamps of tenderly atmospheric blues, soul and jazz shuffles: Animal Skin, Sold, Flesh And Blood, and Loves You Madly, all the way to the sleepy piano-based Widows Of The Revolution. The formula is not exactly galvanizing, even when twisted into the almost erotic crescendo of Lighthouse, or when employed to enhance the old Dylan-ian verve in Dirty Magazine. In some cases it decays into almost abstract soundscaping (Flag and Tiny Voices). It does soar in the closer, the seven-minute orchestral gospel Your Side Of My World, proving that there are emotions behind the anemic sounds.

Civilians (2007), adding Bill Frisell on guitar and VanDyke Parks on piano to the combo, added a couple of tunes (Civilians, I Will Write My Book) in that blues-jazz vein with an even stronger vintage accent but mostly turned to solemn monotonous tales that rely too much on words (Civil War, You Can't Fail Me Now, Scare Me to Death, God Only Knows, and the slightly more effective Wave). The noir jumping Time Is a Lion comes as sighs of relief. The longer meditations (Shut Me Up and the mournful Our Song) do not fare much better. Despite the ever more ambitious lineups, Henry's music was progressively losing (not gaining) depth and pathos.

Blood From Stars (2009) marked a return to music, not just storytelling. The Man I Keep Hid toys with blues and ragtime, halfway between Randy Newman and Tom Waits. Stars evokes his favorite ghosts Bob Dylan and Van Morrison but in a context of melodramatic pop crooning. Progress Of Love echoes Broadway showtunes, and This Is My Favorite Cage is a chamber lied, while Suit On A Frame blends syncopated electronic beats and African piano. Both the singing and the playing are creative enough to make each song a model of semantic interplay. The blues and jazz obsession of previous albums is here channeled in the demented blues-rock Death To The Storm in the bleak, haunting All Blues Hail Mary, and in the majestic marching-band hymn Bellwether.

The dominant mode of Reverie (2011) is the swinging blues (Heaven's Escape, Sticks and Stones), the style that best displays the counterpoint of Henry and his crew (drummer Jay Bellerose, pianist Keefus Ciancia, and bassist David Piltch). This sort of tribute to Great Depression-era music is a recurring pathology of USA's rock music (Ry Cooder, Randy Newman), so it is hardly original. Joe Henry fails to inject anything other than an elegant delivery.

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