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Joe Henry - Blood From Stars

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As a stylistic choice, Joe Henry could change that at will. I'm not talking about the natural timber of his voice or his range. I'm talking about the affect he wears that's been borrowed from soul singers-- certain vibrato techniques, the sustain used on specific vowel sounds obviously reflecting a certain ethnic dialect , scooping notes, etc... That's all stuff that a singer -- and yes, particularly a white singer doing blues/soul-- kicks on like an effects pedal to color their sound. It's a bit like acting and singers all do it to varying degrees and there's nothing inauthentic about that at all per se. The issue is whether the voice a singer "spins" is convincing in a given musical scenario. I just find the soul singing on Blood From Stars to be grating and a contrived.

I would be interested to hear about how important the lyrical content was to you guys in determining this a "masterpiece" or best album of the decade. What other considerations did you find outstanding?

Edited by Greg P

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I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable separating the lyrics from the music, at least not with artists like Henry, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, etc. Both are part of the Song, and both should serve the other.

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I would be interested to hear about how important the lyrical content was to you guys in determining this a "masterpiece" or best album of the decade. What other considerations did you find outstanding?

Honestly, like you, lyrics are the last thing on my mind. And like Civilians, it took a few listens for ANYTHING to start sinking in, but when it did, it did so tattoo-like. It's not coming out any time soon. So, I like the music first.

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I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable separating the lyrics from the music, at least not with artists like Henry, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, etc.
But in your review, the lyrics receive the bulk of the attention. I've only read it once, but i figure half, if not more, of your assessment discusses the merits of the lyrics and themes covered. No quibble from me. It's a very well-written piece, like all of your reviews. I'm just trying to figure exactly why "masterpiece" and "album of the decade" are being used so enthusiastically by so many on this forum. For all i know, you may be right. What I'm reading from you gentleman is that the lyrics are amazing.

I'm not hiding my criticism here; I just don't think the music itself is all that special. I think it's well produced and recorded... there are some wonderful organic sounds from acoustic instruments from start to finish. Great. I could cite a dozen mainstream releases this year that could boast the same claim. Melodically, like most of Henry's stuff, i find it pretty barren. Possibly after a couple scotches, i will feel differently. I just want to hear musically-- besides featuring some great session players-- why these songs represent such an astounding high water mark for this guy.

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I just want to hear musically-- besides featuring some great session players-- why these songs represent such an astounding high water mark for this guy.

IMHO...

1. Jay Bellerose is a genius doing some of his best work here.

2. Marc Ribot

3. Henry loves to play around with effects, especially splashes of old-time radio sound; but here, he uses them as accents with greater restraint and, thus, greater effect.

4. Marc Ribot

5. Levon. 17 years old, and he's brilliant.

6. There's a sense of live chemistry and barely controlled chaos in these performances that surpass anything on Civilians and Tiny Voices.

7. Henry refrains (no pun intended) from repeating what must be his favorite lyrics over and over again the way he did on Civilians (which came to bug me somewhat).

8. He sticks with singing like Joe Henry, rather than trying to sing like a black man. (Okay, sorry... that was just an elbow in Greg's ribs.)

9. Marc Ribot

10. As Josh mentioned in one of his earlier posts... Henry lets the band jam.

11. The music in "All Blues Hail Mary" lives up to a song that has the words "All Blues" in the title.

12. The music in "All Blues Hail Mary" is good enough to support a line as beautiful as "How dark this bit of light so late that falls across your breast" ... one of the most beautiful lines of poetry I've heard or read in a while.

13. "Death to the Storm" has a power that makes me believe it could, in fact, kill a storm.

14. It sounds like it was all played in one set.

For starters.

Edited by Overstreet

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I stopped by A&F knowing there would be a long thread devoted to this album, which I listened to a couple times today ($3.99 download on Amazon) and which, like every other Joe Henry album I've tried my darnedest to appreciate, bores me senseless. For me, it mostly comes down to Andy's comment: "Joe's voice is Joe's voice, and how people react to individual voices is so subjective that it seems pointless to argue about it." It's not that I dislike his voice, so much as I'm completely unmoved by it.

I find myself agreeing with most of Greg's complaints, though, particularly his characterization of the melodies as "pretty barren" and the better-than-averageness of the production and playing. Also, I find it interesting, Jeffrey, that when he asked for insight into the music on the album -- "besides featuring some great session players" -- your 14-item list includes one joke, 5 comments about session players, two comments about lyrics, and 3 comments (numbers 6, 10, and 14) that all say essentially the same thing -- it has a live, jamming feel. I'll listen more closely to "Death to the Storm" tomorrow to see if I can find that power in it.

EDIT: Apologies for leaving a drive-by comment like this. It's late, and my comment comes off snarkier than it was intended. I don't read a lot of music reviews, but I follow a few writers -- Andy, Josh, and Jeffrey, among them -- whose tastes often intersect with my own. So it frustrates me when you all throw out words like "masterpiece" and "best of the decade" about a record I don't like. Like Greg, I want more convincing/guidance, but maybe that's a less reasonable request when it comes to music, which does seem to be a more subjective experience.

Edited by Darren H

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For what it's worth, this is also a headphones album. I think so.

I touch on some of the musical aspects (more than the lyrical ones, at least) in the review I just finished. I'll link it tomorrow.

Greg, I know you're a musician. I don't know if Jeff (you dabble with guitar, right?), Josh or Andy are. I will say, though, that I've focused on lots of the individual parts on this album, and I think it's spellbinding. Ribot's tone (and Henry's, for that matter) make me giddy. I just think everything meshes well. "Suit on a Frame," for instance...Bellerose's snare rim action locks in step with Henry's almost-percussion guitar part. The little swells (both guitar and ...what is that...farfisa?) behind Ribot's Spanish guitar part in "This is My Favorite Cage" are just chilling. And I always feel like "Progress of Love" is going to explode at some point, but it never does...there's a lot of restraint on this album, but barely so.

For what it's worth, I was bored behind belief the first two times I listened to Civilians, and it took me half a year to even REMOTELY like Scar.

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Thanks, Jeff! Definitely something to chew on...

[edit] although... i just read Darren's comments and and realized maybe I let Mr. Overstreet slide a little too easy!

Look, I am obviously not a music critic. I'm a pain in the ass musician. I just don't think, as a critic, you can sling such hyperbole without some substantive explanations.

For example, in my own "best of the decade" list is a little album by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Time (the Revelator). I think that album is about as near-perfect as an album can be. It is a masterpiece. I also feel that I can explain exactly why the album is so important, not just in the trajectory of Gillian's career as a folk singer, but also to the music world at the time it was released. Most importantly, I can walk thru the album and song by song point out what makes each tune a unique, memorable, beautiful and emotional entity. Right alongside that would be an exposition on the surprising melodic choices Gillan and David make inside the context of traditional folk structures. Add to that David's haunting improvisations on guitar, the bare bones but utterly effective recording, the lyrics and on and on. I mean, if i'm gonna call something a masterpiece and have my words carry any gravity at all, then i think some 'splaining is in order.

I'd like to hear more 'splaining on this album. Maybe i'm being unfair here. I just expected a far more convincing case for this album's merits than i've read thus far.

[Added] Thanks Jason! :)

Edited by Greg P

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I've only been listening to Joe Henry for about a year. I started with Tiny Voices and have slowly collected many of his albums since then. One thing I've noticed during that time is that with EVERY single one of his records, it took a bit of time before I even liked it. However, with repeat listens, I've grown to love each of his records that I own (Short Man's Room, Kindness of the World, Fuse, Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, Blood from Stars).

This new one has been no different. For the first few listens I wasn't really impressed. But over time I started to notice the lyrical beauty and sophistication (for instance, working with traditional blues formulas hasn't dulled Henry's lyrical creativity, it's fueled it), I also began noting the musical textures, from Ribot's Spanish guitar to the church-y pianos to Levon's smoky saxophones, and finally I saw how Henry tinkers with the blues genre here-- is blues music meant to drive us deeper into our misery or help lift us out of it?-- Henry seems to believe it's the latter as this album is all about light coming out of darkness. In my experience, Henry's records require a bit of work to enjoy, but I've always found that the rewards I reap from them make it worthwhile. (Note: I'm not implying that those who don't enjoy his music just aren't working hard enough at it, I'm just describing my own experience. It's music, so ultimately it's a matter of taste.)

Is it a "masterpiece" or "among the best albums of the decade?" I'm not sure yet--but I certainly have no problem with this album being entered into such discussions.

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Not sure why I'm into lists today.

Clarifications and tangents in response to Darren:

1) I was skimming, and didn't realize I wasn't supposed to mention the musicians in my reasons for why I like the music. I saw his last line and I responded. Bad discussion board-form on my part. Sorry, Darren. Sorry, Greg. Sorry, everybody. Seriously.

2) I named Marc Ribot several times not just because he's Marc Ribot, but because I really love his playing on this album. I love how he doesn't take over, or make me sit there thinking, "MARC RIBOT!!" Instead, his teamwork is as admirable as his choices, song by song, are effective. Sometimes on Tom Waits' albums, it's kind of a Ribot Fireworks Show, and I can't stop thinking about him. Not that that's a bad thing, but here he makes something very rare possible. IMHO.

3) There are singers whose beautiful singing voice moves me. Henry isn't one of them. Neither is Leonard Cohen. Neither are Colin Meloy or Sam Phillips or T-Bone Burnett. I'm sure better singers could do wonders with their songs. Allison Krauss did "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" beautifully. But I still prefer Sam's version, perhaps because there's something that affects me when I hear the words sung by the person who penned them. So long as their voice isn't distractingly bad, I like that personal connection. I'm glad Henry's the one singing these songs. That's just me. Can't wait to hear Solomon Burke do a cover.

But it doesn't always work. Here's how big my blindspots are. I've tried forever to appreciate what the hell is so great about Van Morrison. Still not getting it. On any level. No matter how much I read. I don't want to be rash and accuse him of "aping", but I listen to him and I can't stop thinking, "Whatever he's trying to be, I'm not convinced." And, okay, let me take what's left of my credibility as a music reviewer and finish it off. I don't see the big deal about Bruce Springsteen either. At all. No matter how many times Andy and Josh rejoice, no matter how many times I see the word "masterpiece". I enjoy the Pete Seger album for the big house-jam feel of it. But the rest? Maybe someday it'll hit me. But all I'm saying is it shouldn't bother me at all if somebody doesn't fall in love with my favorite artists. Because I'm no expert, and it's very likely I'm going to be unaffected by some of theirs.

4) I meant to make three different points when I wrote 6, 10, and 14. I must have failed completely, since Darren thought they were all the same point.

- With 6, I was thinking about the style. Is it jazz? Is it rock? Is it blues? Maybe you have a dozen albums that this one sounds like, but it sounds rather unique to me. And it feels like they've been playing this way together for a long time, which is a nice trick.

- With 10, I was thinking about how Henry doesn't sing perpetually this time. I had the sense, on Civilians, that he did. It felt like he was so concerned about *what* he was singing on that album that my attention rarely strayed from the words. This time, I can settle in and really appreciate the musicianship.

- 14 was about how they fool me into thinking this is performed as one continuous set, which gives a nice coherence to the experience. I should also mention, I like how the opening instrumental and then the sung version of that song at the close is a nice touch.

As for "aping"... in interviews and album notes, Henry seems to demonstrate a familiarity with and appreciation for jazz and blues going back many years. Could it be that his singing style has been influenced by immersion in it? And if so, isn't that different than "aping" a style? There are singers who sing like Dylan because they want to imitate Dylan, and others who sing like Dylan because that's what they've soaked up.

Wish I could give more meaningful "guidance", but I've never been a music student, I don't read music, and I don't have the vocabulary or experience... especially with jazz... to make a powerful argument for Henry. This is why I rarely bother to write music reviews for anything other than my own website.

And as for whether or not it's a "masterpiece," I am not throwing that term around. The only time I mentioned it in this thread, I said:

I don't like to use the word "masterpiece" anymore, as I don't think any work of art deserves such a label until we've had at least ten years to think it over... but Henry's last two albums — Tiny Voices and Civilians — strike me as strong candidates for the term.

In other words, all three blow me away. Heck, I don't know why I'm leaving out Scar. All four.

So, no, I've got nothing invested in the term "masterpiece." But as a matter of honesty, yeah, I've fallen hard for this record, and am pretty sure it's long-term. It's one of my favorites of the decade. Best of the Decade? Wouldn't know how to measure.

Darren, as my enthusiasm seems to have contributed to your feeling frustrated, I'm sorry, man. Seriously. Especially since we love so many of the same albums and artists. Music *is* in some ways maddenlingly subjective. I want to like No Line on the Horizon as much as Josh does. Even half as much. Very very badly. Oh well. We'll always have Polly Jean and Annie Clark.

And cripes, this post is long. Sorry about that too. The fellow in my avatar could probably do something about that.

Edited by Overstreet

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There are singers whose beautiful singing voice moves me. Henry isn't one of them. Neither is Leonard Cohen. Neither are Colin Meloy or Sam Phillips or T-Bone Burnett. I'm sure better singers could do wonders with their songs.

Regarding Joe Henry and Sam Phillips, I'm pretty sure that their singing is a big deal to me. Their voices are unique and add something special.

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I listened to this album throughout the day (thanks to the link on NPR). I found it quite compelling (most songs, at least), but the last track is unbelievable. Sounded like something Leonard Cohen or maybe Bob Dylan could have written, and delivered in a sparse arrangement, Joe's voice was about perfect for the reminder that darkness and storm have their place, too.

I know, the voice had been the subject of some differing opinions, and I won't try to convince you. But it sure works for me on Light No Lamp When The Sun Comes Down,

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Greg, to return very briefly to a question you asked me earlier that got lost in the shuffle... when I say that it's difficult for me to separate the lyrics from the music, part of what I mean is that, with a Joe Henry album, I don't simply love the lyrics for what they MEAN, but also how they SOUND. Joe is clearly an avid poetry reader, and he understands-- more than any other songwriter I know-- the innate musicality of language. His words have momentum, and so, even on a sparser number, the lyric carries a lot of drama and intrigue, at least for me. And Joe, as a singer, has a wonderful sense of cadence, I believe.

Which is all to say: The way the album sounds is not just a platform for Henry to deliver lyrics. The lyrics are a crucial part of the way the album sounds.

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Thanks, Jeff! Definitely something to chew on...

[edit] although... i just read Darren's comments and and realized maybe I let Mr. Overstreet slide a little too easy!

Look, I am obviously not a music critic. I'm a pain in the ass musician. I just don't think, as a critic, you can sling such hyperbole without some substantive explanations.

For example, in my own "best of the decade" list is a little album by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Time (the Revelator). I think that album is about as near-perfect as an album can be. It is a masterpiece. I also feel that I can explain exactly why the album is so important, not just in the trajectory of Gillian's career as a folk singer, but also to the music world at the time it was released. Most importantly, I can walk thru the album and song by song point out what makes each tune a unique, memorable, beautiful and emotional entity. Right alongside that would be an exposition on the surprising melodic choices Gillan and David make inside the context of traditional folk structures. Add to that David's haunting improvisations on guitar, the bare bones but utterly effective recording, the lyrics and on and on. I mean, if i'm gonna call something a masterpiece and have my words carry any gravity at all, then i think some 'splaining is in order.

I'd like to hear more 'splaining on this album. Maybe i'm being unfair here. I just expected a far more convincing case for this album's merits than i've read thus far.

[Added] Thanks Jason! :)

Jeffrey's already covered this, but I'll throw in my piece anyway. I have a friend who loves, loves, loves Scandinavian metal. I don't mean precious gold from Malmo. I mean guys in Viking helmets and fish in their beards who play guitars and scream. Periodically he invites me over, and I listen to him play his music, and wax rhapsodic about how much the music means to him. I believe him. But I don't get it. I don't even remotely get it.

So I'm content to let him be edified and entertained, which he is. And I'm content to let you shrug your shoulders over Blood From Stars. For what it's worth, I have a similar reaction to Gillian Welch's Time (The Revelator). I don't think it's a bad album, at all. It's pretty good. But it drags a bit for me, particularly that interminable last song, and there's no way I would consider it a masterpiece. That doesn't mean that I doubt your catalogue of the album's virtues. I believe you hear it that way.

This isn't algebra. We don't plug in the proper values for "music" and "lyrics" and "production" and arrive at the proper answer for Best Album of the Decade. Personal taste is a huge factor. Life experiences are a huge factor. I don't know if I would love Blood From Stars as much as I do if I didn't hear it as an album made by someone who's been at the marriage dance for a good long while, and who understands his own culpability in being an Asshole with a capital A, and who recognizes and celebrates the refining aspects of the marriage crucible, and how God uses it to burnish and polish some rough, rough edges. I hear all that in these songs, and because the subjects of these songs seem to resonate with my own life, I'm probably more prone to view the album favorably. Then again, I could be making it all up. I certainly don't know the dynamics of Joe Henry's life or marriage. I could be reading in what I want to see. I hear a seamless blend of jazz and blues and folk music, and I hear some urbane Ellington updated with some Ornette Coleman avant-garde skronk, and I think "Cool, nobody else is doing that these days." I hear a young sax player named Levon Henry and think that he does moody '50s babymaker ballads and New Orleans funeral marches and free jazz elephant squeals equally well, and I'm impressed. I hear a great band playing off of one another brilliantly, improvising within a clearly defined structure, and I want to join the Marc Ribot and Jay Bellerose fan clubs, if such things exist. I hear an album that was clearly made as an album, with a prelude and a coda, and one hell of an intermission courtesy of Levon, and I hear imagery and themes that repeat and morph from song to song, and I'm supremely thankful that somebody still thinks hard about hour-long chunks of music. And I'm very, very thankful that the album seems to be made from a Christian point of view, and not a plastic, sloganeering Christian point of view at that, but one that recognizes the difficulties and challenges of loving God and simply loving the people who are dearest in life, let alone one's enemies, and which excavates deep down to find the poetry and beauty in the darkness.

That's why I love it. But I recognize that so much of this is about me. I'm content if people don't view it as the album of the decade, or even if they don't particularly like it.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Greg, to return very briefly to a question you asked me earlier that got lost in the shuffle... when I say that it's difficult for me to separate the lyrics from the music, part of what I mean is that, with a Joe Henry album, I don't simply love the lyrics for what they MEAN, but also how they SOUND. Joe is clearly an avid poetry reader, and he understands-- more than any other songwriter I know-- the innate musicality of language. His words have momentum, and so, even on a sparser number, the lyric carries a lot of drama and intrigue, at least for me. And Joe, as a singer, has a wonderful sense of cadence, I believe.
Well-played, sir.

The same goes for your explanation this morning, Andy. Good stuff.

Edited by Greg P

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Two more listens confirm my earlier suspicions: I really hate Joe Henry's voice. ;) The music is growing on me a bit, though. I need to take it home and listen on my main system.

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I'll stop crashing this party, I swear.

I just wanted to mention that i returned to three of four songs this morning, and was really impressed with the recording and production on this album. I get the attraction--particularly as Jason said, with headphones. There's such a yummy palette of sounds; the kerplunk of an old piano, raspy, rumbling bass and guitar layers equal parts chiming and gritty. Gorgeous. But it's all just style. Take away the dynamic "cinematography" and you have a "movie" without much substance, at least not compositionally IMO. Selah.

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I'll stop crashing this party, I swear.

Oh, hey, I think it's an established A&F tradition that when some people stumble onto a work that inspires and moves them, others take it upon themselves to post relentlessly, negating their praise at every turn, and harassing them until they surrender. And then you go and threaten us with some kind of grace? ;)

Seriously, though, it has been good to have this conversation without anybody deciding that enthusiasts = blind fanboys. It has seemed to me that lately, whenever somebody falls in love with a work of art at A&F, it's just a matter of time before some write that fellow (or those fellows) off as having been infected by some horrible contagion or, worse, "hype." And that has definitely discouraged me from taking much time to write about works I love here. I waded into this particular Joe Henry pool with great reluctance and trepidation for that very reason.

Edited by Overstreet

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I do think that Henry is a great sensualist-- that little sounds like the ones you mention, Greg, are very important to him.

But I do not think he's all style and no substance, and not just because I reject the idea that style and substance can ever really be separated. From a compositional standpoint, this album-- more than any other he's made, I think-- is a very formal work, married to certain structures and tropes borrowed from the blues. And yet, those forms aren't limiting, but liberating, because the album is also gloriously spontaneous, at times even anarchic. It's a fairly masterful balance of improvisation and careful compositional architecture.

And again, I'm not sure that you can divorce the words from the compositions.

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I'll stop crashing this party, I swear.
Oh, hey, I think it's an established A&F tradition that when some people stumble onto a work that inspires and moves them, others take it upon themselves to post relentlessly, negating their praise at every turn, and harassing them until they surrender. And then you go and threaten us with some kind of grace? ;)
hehe... Seriously, for me this has nothing to do with Joe Henry. It has more to do with a critical defense of the "masterpiece" tag, which in all fairness after a little grumbling, finally emerged in this thread... at least in my view. In a serious dialogue about music, i dont think you should throw down those terms unless you can pony-up an explanation-- especially (and please, don't hate) among dudes whose reviews are published and read by many. I don't see this as a negative thing.

Music criticism is not just about "magic" and subjectivity. I think that's one component that distinguishes A&F from fanboy forums. Some of the objective defense of Blood from Stars that emerged in the past 24 hrs has demonstrated the growth of the Music section of this board.

And for the record, I like all y'all and appreciate your music writing and input . <group hug!>

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All you people are a bunch of blind fanboys. ;)

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