Thursday, August 20, 2009

Extraordinary Joe

In the American Idol-age when everything is spectacular but nothing is good, a guy like Joe Henry doesn’t stand a chance. You have to listen a few times for the subtleties to emerge, the beauty to take hold. But once you’ve started to inhabit the songs, they start to inhabit you. The whispers come on like jackhammers. The quiet builds to a roar. The words left unsaid begin to shout. No one else in music today wields restraint quite so ruthlessly.

I’ve been an unabashed Joe Henry fan for fifteen years or so now, as he has made gentle stylistic shifts, from straight alt-country (Kindness of the World) to slinky, urbane funk (Fuse) to ethereal noir jazz (Tiny Voices). But with his last two albums, 2007’s Civilians and the brand new Blood From Stars, all the flavors have simmered and married. There’s no more blues, jazz, folk or funk, there’s just Joe Henry music.

I’ll leave it for others to give the detailed reviews, but suffice it to say that Blood From Stars is an exceptional, immensely enjoyable record (is it, as Andy Whitman writes, a masterpiece? That’s a heavy word. Get back to me in a few years). It builds slowly, in smoky Henry fashion, and peaks ten songs in with the mesmerizing “Suit on a Frame.” Henry’s crack band, highlighted by ace guitarist Marc Ribot (who made his bona fides at the side of Tom Waits and Elvis Costello), achieves pure grace throughout, and acts as an extension of his artistic voice. Henry’s words tell truths through striking ambiguities, underpinned by a sound that is meticulously constructed and flawlessly executed. Think of it as Steely Dylan.

Like all of Henry’s best work, Blood From Stars makes me want to put on proper clothes, drink good Scotch and read great books. As Jack said to Helen in that film, Joe Henry makes me want to be a better man.

[Stream Blood From Stars at Joe Henry’s website]


Snowwhite said...

I will say Mike that you got this one exactly right. Civilians was a stone cold masterpiece. So it is for Blood From Stars.

Go get it now. Amazon Digital download for only $8.99.

hookfinger said...

I cannot wait to hear this record. A fine recommendation. His last live show left me floored!