Joe Henry, a often overlooked singer-songwriter, released his 11th album this Tuesday: “Blood From The Stars.”
For those who are unfamiliar with Joe’s work, his music is jazz based with very loose arrangements often featuring piano, Spanish style guitar, and usually highlighting dramatic horns. That description does what he creates little justice.
Joe Henry started his career as an alt-country artist. To be honest I have only heard one of his older albums and it struck me as unremarkable. Mid-career Joe released “Trampoline” in 1996. It would be a watershed moment for him, like when Dylan went electric or Tom Waits’ “Swordfishtrombones.”
On “Trampoline” gone are his country song structures and steely guitars, in their place are sweeping drum brushes and wavering horns. His next release “Fuse” experiments with song samples and a more heavily produced sound, with a Sly and The Family Stone feel bordering on Dub.
His next release “Scar,” featured Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau, and a rare performance from legend Ornette Coleman, gained him respect in jazz circles. Joe also becomes more daring with his song writing on “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation” and “Stop” (covered by Madonna as “Don’t Tell Me”).
Joe Henry then signs on with ANTI record company and drops “Tiny Voices,” a sonic soup that roars from start till stop. If “Scar” was a warm cup of tea on a rainy day then “Tiny Voices” is an overflowing, bubbling cocktail. Songs spin out of control and spill over into the next track, only to get wrestled to the ground by Joe, who then lets them loose again. Joe really shows his strength as a producer here, which he is building a reputation as, producing albums for Solomon Burke (Grammy winning) and Ani Difranco among others.
“Tiny Voices” is followed up by “Civilians” which is much simpler musically and much more complicated lyrically. His song writing stretches and reaches flipping phases and turning words into surprising twists. It is sonically stripped down as if to say “Pay Attention, you might miss the point.”
Well, that brings us to the new release “Blood From Stars.” As you might guess from the title, it is a darker, bluesy album full of some of Joe smartest lyrics. Sonically, prepare for a return of the cacophony of “Tiny Voices.” Marc Ribot is back with his ten fingered hands and Joe’s son plays the sax which is spot on. Most of the songs follow the blues structure of simple lines and repetition, here it is juxtaposed by the wild antics of top notch musicians. Subtle when it needs to be, out of control when it should, the songs ebb and flow. Production is top tier again as you can almost sense a menacing force hiding in the back beat of the songs. Light and dark is a huge theme through out and the final two tracks seem to close that theme out quite nicely: “Stars” despite the lyrics (a couple searching for a light they swore they left on) is bright, playful and hopeful. “Light No Lamp When The Sun Comes Down” is dark, moody and yearning.
It is those two forces that pull this album towards it glorious end: grace and grime, hope and fear, joy and misery. For an artist who is overlooked too often, purhaps the darkness is where he will shine the most.