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Andy Whitman

Joe Henry

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Josh Hurst's mention of Joe Henry in the Aimee Mann thread (he produces Aimee's new album) reminds me to sing the praises of this largely unheralded singer and songwriter.

In my opinion, Joe Henry ought to be mentioned in the same breath with the Nicks (Drake and Cave), Tom Waits, and Bill Mallonee as songwriters who dig down deep to find shards of beauty amidst the psychic and spiritual rubble. His early album "Murder of Crows" suffers from overproduction, but from then on you really can't lose. "Shuffletown," produced by T-Bone Burnett, is an almost unclassifiable mix of folk and jazz, and features jazz stalwarts Cecil McBee on bass and Don Cherry on trumpet, along with T-Bone's former Alpha Band mates Steve Soles and Davis Mansfield. It's a beautiful album -- spare, austere, and lovely. "Short Man's Room" and "Kindness of the World" move into the alt-country realm for which Joe is probably best known (to the extent that he's known at all), and feature The Jayhawks as the backing band. The last few albums -- "Trampoline," "Fuse," "Scar," and "Tiny Voices" -- abandon the alt-country sound for an utterly compelling and genre-defying mix of folk, electronica, jazz, and ambient textures. They're beautiful, and unlike anything you've ever heard.

He's also my favorite songwriter. I love music made by Christians (as opposed to Christian music), and although I have no idea where Henry would place himself on the faith continuum, his lyrics consistently reflect a searching and spiritually attuned mind. You won't find anything even remotely approaching a credal statement -- his lyrics are far too oblique for that -- but I love his evocative images, and I love the way he shines the light on the shadowy region of the heart, finds the dirt that has been swept into out-of-the-way corners, and holds it up for closer scrutiny. He's a brilliant lyricist. My only complaint is that he takes too long between albums. It's been two years since "Tiny Voices," and I'm more than ready for a new release.

Please don't speak another truth out loud

Whatever else you do,

I only want you to keep me lost in your cloud

And I'll do the same for you.

Don't believe a single thing you've heard

Really, I'm as good as gold.

You don't need to sell me with another word

I'm already sold

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.

Love, when it's defeated, just remember--

Can still keep you in its hold.

No need now to tempt me with surrender

I'm already sold

What was that-- A lonesome battle cry?

Sweeping in upon us from the rear?

Like a child, I hide my eyes

And think I've disappeared.

Mercy, hope, faith and love and treason

Are trump as long as darkness holds,

I don't need to see the sun, there's no reason--

I'm already sold

-- Joe Henry, "Sold"

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When I first heard Tiny Voices in 2003, it immediately became my favorite release of that year. These days, I consider it to be my favorite singer/songwriter release of all time. There is no album that I love more than this one, except for The Joshua Tree.

Needless to say, I could talk about this guy for hours, but I'll try to contain my enthusiasm. Let me instead say that Andy is right on the money concerning Henry's songwriting. His words are always so provocative, his language so eloquent, his ideas so challenging. And the unpredictable, chaotic music matches his poetic wandering perfectly.

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Guest thom_jurek

Josh Hurst's mention of Joe Henry in the Aimee Mann thread (he produces Aimee's new album) reminds me to sing the praises of this largely unheralded singer and songwriter.

I have been writing about Joe Henry since Murder OF Crows came out on A&M. The guy is most def. in a league with those you mentioned, but he's also in a zone of his own because his story/songs have visuals that are just blurry enough to come from somewhere real.

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Reviving this thread to say that I'm finally making progress on completing my Joe Henry collection; I was astonished to find a five-dollar copy of Shuffletown at a thrift store today, and I am immediately hooked. Hopefully I'll have time to say much more about it later, as I explore the lyrics a bit more.

I've also been listening to Fuse a lot over the past few days. For a long time now I've considered that record to be one of the most frustrating things on my CD shelf; the music has always appealed to me, but the lyrics strike me as maddeningly opaque. Or at least they did until yesterday, when, on a whim, I dusted off the album, popped it into the player, and whaddaya know... for whatever reason, the lyrics just clicked with me this time.

So all that to say, I'm more of a Joe Henry fan than ever. His stuff belongs on the shelf beside the best work of Sam Phillips, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello. (Except Murder of Crows, which is indeed a forgettable record).

Please, Joe... PLEASE... put out a new solo disc soon! puppy_dog_eyes.gif

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Please, Joe... PLEASE... put out a new solo disc soon! puppy_dog_eyes.gif

I could not agree more. I've been listening to Joe Henry's albums quite a bit in the last month. He's put together a body of work that is uniformly excellent (well, okay, Murder of Crows isn't that great, but that was a long time ago), and that is criminally ignored. I just wrote about him on my blog, and what I said was this:

My favorite singer/songwriter these days is a guy with the unassuming name of Joe Henry. He started in the late '80s as an alt-country/rootsy troubadour, and recorded several excellent albums with The Jayhawks as his backing band and with T-Bone Burnett producing. But in the mid-'90s he took a left turn into an atmospheric mix of folk and funk and soul and jazz that defies easy categorization. It's late-night lounge music of a sort, a mix of Sinatra the salloon singer and Dylanesque surrealism, but it's way, way off kilter, as if the lounge might exist on one of the outer moons of Saturn. It's eerily beautiful, and always, always, always, just slightly bent. Just when you think he's going to come up with a hummable chorus, he throws in yet another dischordant note. I love his unpredictability.

He's also an amazing lyricist. If Dylan hadn't shown the capacity to occasionally rouse himself and produce great music in his dotage, I'd tell you that he's the logical successor to Dylan. As it is, Joe Henry is brilliant and disturbing, spinning out the stuff of nightmares, but with startling imagery and beautiful insight. Here are the lyrics to two songs about addiction. He doesn't only write about addiction. But if you're going to put together a soundtrack for Addiction: The Movie, I can't think of two better places to start.

Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself

Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself--

Spreading out my wings

Above us like a tree,

Laughing now, out loud

Almost like I was free

I look at you as the thing I wanted most

You look at me and it's like you've seen a ghost

I wear the face

Of all this has cost:

Everything you tried to keep away from me,

Everything I took from you and lost

Lights shine above me, they're like your eyes above the street

Lights shine below me, they're like stars beneath my feet

I stood on your shoulders

And I walked on my hands,

You watched me while I tried to fall

You can't bear to watch me land

Take me away, carry me like a dove

Take me away, carry me like a dove

Love me like you're lying

Let me feel you near,

Remember me for trying

And excuse me while I disappear

-- Joe Henry,

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Hmmm... "Tiny Voices" as song about addiction? Interesting take, Andy; I always interpreted the song as being about the wild, dangerous, unrelenting love of the Divine, and how we should be careful what we ask Him for because He just might give it to us.

I'm not seeing the addiction idea at the moment; where are you seeing that in the song?

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Hmmm... "Tiny Voices" as song about addiction? Interesting take, Andy; I always interpreted the song as being about the wild, dangerous, unrelenting love of the Divine, and how we should be careful what we ask Him for because He just might give it to us.

I'm not seeing the addiction idea at the moment; where are you seeing that in the song?

Well, the wonderful thing about Henry's lyrics is that they are fluid enough to be interpreted in many ways.

But here are the lyrics that particularly strike me as pertaining to addiction:

All manner of abandon

Is just the thing we need,

and

Swing up on the highest beam

And let the floods come on.

Who wants to be there wondering,

When the Wonders rage on through?

and particularly

I can quit this anytime,

It's just to help me sleep,

It stops the tiny voices

And strange hours that they keep.

As you noted yesterday, Henry's lyrics are slippery and shape-shifting at best, opaque at worst. They're hard to pin down, and that's not a bad thing at all. So I'm not especially sold on the addiction angle. But it seems plausible to me.

There's also a spiritual undercurrent and a lot of biblical imagery in his songs, so I wouldn't object to the "wild, dangerous, unrelenting love of the Divine" interpretation, either.

When I interviewed Joe Henry a couple years ago I asked him about the song "Flesh and Blood," which also appears on Tiny Voices. He said that it was about the mystical union between husband and wife and between God and man in the Eucharist. I thought that was a great answer, and pretty much sums up why I find his songs so enigmatic and appealing. He mixes the human and the divine, the loftiest sentiments with coarse and vibrant life. They're about all those things, and how one bleeds into the other. Is "Falling For You" about a monkey on the back or the hound of heaven? About the only answer I can come up with is "Yes."

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Huh... "Flesh and Blood" about the Eucharist... I never would've thought of that, but it's an interesting idea.

So, did you happen to ask Henry about "This Afternoon"?

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So, did you happen to ask Henry about "This Afternoon"?

We talked briefly about that amazing song. He wasn't very forthcoming, probably because he knows that the song works best because of what it doesn't say. He did say that he wanted to present a musical version of a snapshot, a moment in time, but with the image deliberately blurred. That sounds about right, and it fits many of his songs.

On the afternoon

That the revolution began,

I was in a hotel pool with another kid

And an Australian business man.

And nothing there would make you say

After all this talk, today would be the day?

Nothing but an upset tray

Left by the pool

This afternoon

An orange cup was thrown

From an upstairs room,

A cherry bomb of giddy lust, I guess,

From a bride and groom.

And nothing there would make you say

After all this talk, today would be the day?

Nothing but an orange cup

From an upstairs room

This afternoon

I've spent every long summer

Just this way

Since my mother started making up their beds

And learning to look the other way.

So what's one more drunk businessman

Coming on to me in the shallow end?

Nothing there would make you say

After all this talk, today would be the day?

Listen:

What's another slogan mean

Scrolled across my TV screen?

What's another bride and groom

Locked up in a fancy room?

What's one more drunk businessman

Coming on to me in the shallow end

This afternoon?

-- Joe Henry, "This Afternoon"

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New candidate for biggest bump?

 

I was never a Joe Henry fan until I gave into the insistence of Andy, Josh, JO, and others in these parts. Now, Tiny Voices has become one of my ideal albums and a common conversation partner in darker hours of the night. His lyrics are hard to pin down. But all those horns sure point my compass needle in the right direction. Count me in among the converts.

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Did you hear the On Being interview with Krista Tippett, Michael? It's so, so good.

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I did. As an anabaptist/fundamentalist of origin, I only see doom and destruction in the world's future.

 

Except when I pop on the radio and hear Joe Henry on my favorite radio program, and my soul bends a little toward post-millenialism. Just a smidge.

Edited by M. Leary

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