This is Joe Henry's ninth (9) album and it's the first one I've bought in a long time. Somewhere along the way he fell so far into Tom Waits that he forgot Joe Henry, and I don't even much like who Tom Waits is these days, let alone one of my favorite all-time folks trying to imitate that same Tom Waits. Tom Waits was marvelous when he was the gruff troubadour penning excellent lyrics like "Better off Without a Wife," "Foreign Affair," "A Sight for Sore Eyes," or "Nighthawk Postcards." But when the God knows how many packs a day habit turned his voice into some sort of industrial accident, I just couldn't take it any more. I'm sure his new stuff is great and maybe even over my head, but I just think that old stuff of his is where it's at. And I felt the same way about this Joe Henry guy (who I have adored for many years but about whom you have likely never heard -- am I right?) for quite some time. However, I think Madonna's brother-in-law might have rekindled my interest with this effort. In fact, there's one song on here that Madonna decided on her own to cover.
Mr. Henry told Terry Gross on her Fresh Air program on NPR the other day that he did NOT try to pitch that "Sold" song to his superstar relative. In fact, he said that if he was going to pitch a tune to Madonna it sure wouldn't have been that one. He described it as sort of a throwaway tune where he might have gotten too Paul McCartneyish (my term; not his) and gone the "moon / June" route just a bit too overtly. He went into quite a lengthy spiel about how he's never tried to make money off of this all-too-obvious opportunity he fell into by having married Madonna's little sister. And I believed every word of it. I trust this guy because I know him well from several hours of wrapping and unwrapping his tunes around this little pole that floats inside my head. He did wind up saying that the royalty checks from her version of his tune has put him in an entirely unfamiliar tax bracket but that he is adapting quite nicely, thank you. I'm glad. He deserves the good life for all the happiness he's given me by way of the small percentage of his songs that I adore, if for no other reason.
As I said in the Shuffletown writeup (about his second album), I think that was one of the most important albums of the post-sixties era. I know some of you folks love Wilco and there is a My Morning Jacket contingent here and you can't overlook the Tom Waits crowd. But I still, to this day, maintain that Shuffletown was heads and shoulders above anything in that genre I'd ever heard up until the time I heard it, and I've heard very little better even to this very day. The thing that puts Mr. Henry in a category all his own is that almost all of his songs are short stories put to music. I cannot think of many folks who can tell a better tale in a couple of minutes than he does. The Better than Ezra guy, Kevin Griffin, can do it for an entire CD. But his stories might be a little too Stephen King. Fiona Apple can do it, but her stories may be a little too much Lifetime Channel. Bob Dylan can do it, but his stories may be a little too Borges. Van Morrison used to be able to do it, but he's gotten old and in the way. My man Joe Henry can do it time and time again, and all of the stories are pure Flannery O'Connor. I don't know what your standards are, but this is the gold standard to me.
There are certain lines in pop songs that never leave you. That's one reason I just cannot get into classical music. I'm sure it's marvelous and I'm really missing something, but if it doesn't tell a story with words that I can capture in my heart and wrap around that little floating pole in my head, it just doesn't hold my interest. When the Better than Ezra guy asked this question in his song, WWOZ, it dropped anchor in my stomach and I'll be thinking about it until the day I die. He is talking about the changes we go through as we age and the question is this:
What thoughts can I call allies
When this circle of ribs keeps working on its own?
When Joe Henry makes the following statement in "Drowning in the River Half Laughing" from the Shuffletown album, I almost faint from the critical introspection involved. He admits that,
I have come to think
My chest is hollow through and through.
If that feeling has ever been expressed better in a better song overall, I want to hear it. And the sound of these thoughts mixing with the melody has a lot to do with their staying power.
Speaking of the sound of music, Mr. Henry has been very busy lately doing work as a producer. In fact, two of the hottest revival albums of last year were both produced by him: Solomon Burke's "Make Do with What You Got" and Bettye LaVette's "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise."
It's actually the sound of Tiny Voices that made it the first CD I've bought in a while by Joe Henry. I didn't invent the term in relation to this compilation, but a tip of the hat and buy a cold one if you see him at the bar for the reviewer who called it "pop noir." That's better than a perfect description of this stuff. It's not ambient music and it's not pop and it's not jazz and it's not Tom Waits industrial noise, but it's something from all of that put together. And it gives me the chillbumps when it falls together in a certain way, as it does on about a handful of tunes here.
It was the song "Flag" that drew me into this one. It sounds like a Civil War homecoming song, uplifting in the face of abject defeat. The brief banjo and trumpet-themed chorus and the way it segues back into the basic tune is just breathtaking.
I loved you long before I knew
Love is something one decides to do
Look at the cover photo on this CD. Think of the word "flag" and all it has come to mean. Tell me you don't think of a guy named Luis Buñuel. Mr. Henry said in one interview that the only instruction he gave to his musicians before they spent five days in December of 2002 at the old Sound Factory in Hollywood recording this thing, mostly in live sessions, was that they had to watch Buñuel's "The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz" prior to sitting in. That reminds me of when Buñuel first met his favorite collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere. The two sat down together and Buñuel asked him right off, "Do you dream?" When Carriere said, "Yes, I do," Buñuel asked for details. I don't know about you, but that's the kind of conversation I'd want to have with a man before the small talk gets started. And, as a musician, being asked to watch a film like this makes much more sense than being given sheet music prior to a session.
In the liner notes, Joe Henry says he used
"Chris Bruce on guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion. I had the luxury of two brilliant keyboard players sitting back-to-back in the room: David Palmer and Patrick Warren; and to this mix I added the great jazz clarinetist Don Byron and his frequent confederate Ron Miles on trumpet. The iconic drummer Jim Keltner dropped by one evening and sat with Jay at a single kit for the four-handed take of the song 'Flag.' And finally, my old friend, the late Gregg Arreguin, made his last studio appearance as an already-ghostly presence on 'Widows of the Revolution.' We sat with our knees touching as we played, he and I, and I swear he was levitating."
I could swear I've levitated listening to some of Mr. Henry's best work. The other three songs that affected me deeply on this album are "Dirty Magazines," "Leaning," and "Lighthouse." In fact, I think on repeated listening that "Lighthouse" might be the standout tune here, even though he actually does start out rhyming "spoon" with "moon." You might find other gems here that I've overlooked. Regardless, this is genius stuff and I seriously think that Joe Henry is going to be a name that you'll all know one day. You might as well start now and get ahead of the curve on this one.
I was going to be the bride
Of this whole godforesaken mountainside
Instead I'm just the flower girl
Dropping petals off into this empty world