He’s one of his generation’s most wonderfully unique songwriters, but Joe Henry has always been arguably better-known for things having nothing to do with his songs â€” being married to Madonna’s sister, for instance, or producing a string of superb modern soul albums for other artists. While it’s as likely as not that you’ve heard Henry’s name, if his sales are any indication, chances are slim that you’ve actually spent any time with his music.
Henry isn’t blameless for this state of affairs. In most of these stories, incompetent or unsympathetic labels are to blame, but Henry’s been lucky in that regard; he spent years with Mammoth, and has since moved on to Anti-, both sterling outposts of patience and artistic integrity. The honest, barest truth is that Joe Henry’s music is really not for everyone. It takes time and attention to appreciate; even on his quieter, more stripped-down albums, the songs and performances are woven from dense, often abstract components, and on later releases, he’s veered off into strange, mostly uncharted territory. The cumulative effect is one of distance â€” as a performer, he often seems affable enough, even if his protagonists tend toward the seedier end of the spectrum, but he comes across rather aloof. The rewards for the converted, however, are substantial.
Lyrics are always helpful with Henry, but sometimes you need a flashlight and a roadmap too. We’ll do what we can. Buckle in.
Henry’s debut took awhile to reach a mass audience â€” it wasn’t released on CD all that long ago â€” and it’s easy to imagine him being just fine with that. It isn’t a bad, or even embarrassing album, even as debuts go; on the other hand, there’s nothing all that remarkable about the material, especially when compared with his later work.
On the plus side, you can trace the outlines of the artist he’d soon become â€” Henry’s love of reverb (especially on his vocals) is evident throughout, as is his penchant for famous names in his song titles (“Dewey Wins” [download] predates “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” by 15 years). But though he’d soon go on to twist and bend his influences in confoundingly original ways, on Talk of Heaven, he’s still too clearly indebted to Dylan, Waits, et al. to fully establish his own identity.
All of which is to be expected â€” it’s a debut record, after all â€” and there’s plenty to enjoy here, including “Friend of a Friend,” “There’s Been a Fire,” and “Abraham” (download). But why cover “Wild Night”?
Three years later, Henry resurfaced on a new label (A&M) with a new band (a crew of session vets, including Larry Campbell, Van Dyke Parks, and Chuck Leavell). The result, budget notwithstanding, is disappointingly similar to Talk of Heaven. Again, Murder of Crows isn’t a bad album, nor is it anything for Henry to be ashamed of â€” but in the context of his other albums, it’s fairly pale and ordinary.
It’s a shame, because even though he’d enjoy a higher media profile later in his career, he’d never command this sort of label investment in the future, and it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if he’d released one of his later albums here instead.
Still, not a bad set of songs â€” try “Vigilante” (download) and “Map of Belgium” (download) for starters â€” and to A&M’s credit, the label didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when Murder of Crows failed to chart.
Henry’s transformation between his second and third releases isn’t quite stunning, but it’s close. For this set, recorded live to two-track over a four-day period under the direction of producer T-Bone Burnett, Henry started fiddling with conventional rock & roll. Shuffletown flirts with the edges of country music, not unlike, say, the Jayhawks (whose members would soon record with Henry), but it’s got a shadowy, pensive vibe all its own, due in part to the presence of trumpeter Don Cherry.
It’s a late-night, small-town album â€” kind of like where Waits might have gone if he hadn’t just gotten weird. Like most of Henry’s stuff, this material isn’t especially cheerful, and in spots is even a little sinister â€” take the haunting stalker’s lament, “Date for Church” (download), or the rural Gothic tableau “John Hanging” (download):
There’s a perfect blue
Like a floating jar
Above the trees
Strung like a guitar;
A wind is rising.
The spring is swelling
â€” they whisper secrets
(But John’s not telling)
John is hanging
And his musty suit
Is hiked above
His ankle boots
Short Man’s Room (1992)
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A sunnier, more traditionally folk/country set, Short Man’s Room won Henry rabid critical acclaim, and to this day is widely regarded as a career high point. Having come at Henry’s music from the other direction, I hold a dissenting opinion; the songs are great, and the arrangements (aided and abetted by, among others, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and Marc Perlman) are lovely, but the whole thing is, for lack of a better term, disappointingly straightforward. There’s little of the disquieting wobble and squall that Henry would grow to use so effectively on later recordings.
Ultimately, Short Man’s Room‘s appeal rests largely on how you feel about those later albums â€” if a record like Scar leaves you cold, then Short Man‘s limited commercialism will likely be somewhat soothing. After all, the songs, at their core, are just as sound; Henry had developed a wonderful knack for distilling complex characters in the space of a few minutes, and on songs such as “Stations” (download) and the title track (download), he makes fine use of it.
Kindness of the World (1993)
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Sort of a sequel to Short Man’s Room, in that Henry used some of the previous album’s personnel, and followed a musical path that was, if anything, even more straight-ahead country than before (he covered Tom T. Hall’s “I Flew Over Our House Last Night,” and wrote “She Always Goes” (download) for George Strait).
It elevated his standing with the alt.crowd, and the songs are typically strong, but tracks like “Some Champions” (download) illustrate that Henry was in danger of falling into a John Prine-shaped rut. Perhaps sensing this, he did what he’s always done â€” climbed up and moved on.
First, though, he topped off Kindness with a five-song EP, Fireman’s Wedding, which collected the title track (taken from Kindness of the World) and live recordings of “Hello Stranger” (download) and “Friend to You” (download) with non-album cuts “Dark as a Dungeon” (download) (featuring Billy Bragg) and “Stranger” (download).
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A stunning blend of barbed-wire threads and atmospheric textures, Trampoline finds Henry collaborating with Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton and Ednaswap drummer Carla Azar to move away from more obvious country and folk overtones, and into blissfully uncharted territory.
It isn’t always a marriage made in heaven; occasionally (as on opener “Bob & Ray”) Henry strays from cogent narrative into stream-of-consciousness territory. It’s a cute trick, but not one befitting him, as the album’s stronger material makes powerfully clear. Witness “Flower Girl” (download), featuring ghostly support from the Ames Township Barber’s Choir and the terrific couplet “I was going to be the bride of this whole godforsaken mountainside/Instead, I’m just the flower girl, dropping petals all through this empty world,” and the gorgeous, sorrowful “I Was a Playboy.”
And on the title track (download), Henry proves â€” as he would be increasingly reluctant or unable to do â€” that it’s possible to meld his musical wanderlust to airplay-friendly melodies. Start your collection here.
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Carla Azar returns for Fuse, and is joined here by an expanded cast including Chris Whitley, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jakob Dylan, and Daniel Lanois (who helped mix, along with T-Bone Burnett). The result uses the same rough sonic template, and is every bit as lovably off-kilter, as Trampoline, but the beats are heavier and the songs’ meanings are buried further in ghostly webs of sound.
On its own, it’s a wonderful, odd-shaped chunk of late 20th-century rock music; strung between Trampoline and Scar, however, it loses a little of its impact. It’s unfortunate, because in some ways, Fuse is really better than its predecessor (and certainly easier to absorb than what was to follow). Check out “Skin and Teeth” (download) and “Like She Was a Hammer” (download).
None of Henry’s previous albums had been what you’d call “easy” or “obvious,” but compared to Scar, they were as simple and straightforward as anything by Hilary Duff. Having done what he could with canned beats and alt-pop dressing, he dialed back the noise and assembled a scarily talented band â€” including Marc Ribot, Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau, and Ornette Coleman â€” for this dark, jazz-kissed gem of an album.
By opening with the smoky, lurching “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” Henry dives into the abyss feet first, daring the listener to follow; those who tune out before the band finishes vamping behind Coleman’s strangled lead are certainly forgiven, but stick around, and you’ll feel the album begin to draw you in, little by little, until you’re powerless to stop listening.
It’s the culmination of what is hopefully the first chapter in Henry’s recording career â€” a bewitching hodgepodge of piano-bar storytelling, modern jazz, Cuban music, and classic American torch songs:along with a few dozen other things, some of which probably haven’t even been invented yet. It’s got a frayed, ragged vibe, and Henry’s slippery rasp helps give the impression that the whole thing is always just a few notes away from falling apart, but it works flawlessly.
Tiny Voices (2003)
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More of the same from Henry, which is to say, more genre-defying bliss from pop’s reigning mad chemist. This release continues in the vein of Scar, at least insofar as it retains that album’s creaky, jazz-steeped production ethos. Different personnel lends a slightly different feel, but if you aren’t a jazz nerd, you aren’t liable to notice that it’s Don Byron and not Ornette Coleman handling the horn charts, or that Brad Mehldau isn’t playing piano. The songs are too fucking good. Tiny Voices is, like Scar, a bit of a grower â€” at first listen, much of the album doesn’t register beyond the strange-but-cool background music level. But little things leap out at you â€” the beautifully spare introduction to “Dirty Magazine,” the gently descending refrain of “Flag,” the broken optimism of “Leaning” (download), the haunting chorus backgrounds on the title track. Lines jump out at you here and there:
I remember when love was something I craved
But I settled for less and the comfort it gave,
For living is hard when real love begins
And it leaves heavy lines on your animal skin
If I give in to your open arms
Then you can think the worst of me
For pulling out my weakness like a charm
And making sure you’d see
Now I hang my clothes out to dry
Like waves of surrender, they fly.
The whore of this world looks old and played
Still she peeks from the alley
Like a waiting bride’s maid
Oh, God loves a sinner
God loves a crook
God loves you frail
And splayed out like a book
“Loves You Madly”
But it isn’t until about halfway through the album’s last track, “Your Side of My World” (download), that the album really sucks you in. “There you were, in your high heels and curls,” Henry groans, “Coming in big as life, from your side of my world.” Minutes later, from out of nowhere, a gospel choir. And it all comes together â€” this glorious cacophony, blaring forth from a creaking spaceship flown by a drunken alien pilot â€” and suddenly the album that’s been jabbering at you, softly but insistently, reaches out, grabs you by your lapels, and throws you across the room. You are now among the saved.
Tiny Voices is now four years old, and though Henry has used the intervening years to produce some wonderful albums, it comes as welcome â€” if completely unexpected â€” news that he’s reportedly collaborating with Loudon Wainwright III on music for Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, due this summer. Lord only knows what a full-length album from the two of them would sound like; perhaps the movie will give us a chance to find out.