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Joe Henry - Blood From Stars


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For what it's worth, I think a strong case can be made for Joe Henry as artist of the decade, and I'll probably be making the case in more cogent form in the months ahead. His four albums this decade -- Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, and Blood from Stars -- ought to be festooned with 4.5, 5, 5, and 5 stars, respectively. And as much as it's difficult to improve on consecutive 5-star albums, I think he might have done so with Blood from Stars. It's a ridiculously great set of tunes. I'll hold off until August 18th, the official release date, to comment in detail, but I, for one, won't quibble with Jeffrey's designation of that album as the best of the decade.

I'm dreaming, of course, to think that most people, or most music publications, will follow suit. Joe isn't young enough, hip enough, or indie enough to merit that kind of consideration from most places. My guess is that the votes will be split among Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective, and Sigur Ros fans, and certainly there is merit in the body of work that each of those performers/bands has produced over the past ten years. It's just that, well, they're not the best. Joe Henry is the best.

Oh, and he's probably producer of the decade as well.

Edited by Andy Whitman
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I agree with all of the above.

And additionally... who else has done so much to elevate the profile of soul music in the 2000s? Who else can claim to have been so instrumental in re-igniting so many careers-- Solomon and Bettye and Toussaint-- and bringing best-ever work out of so many veteran artists (like Loudon)?

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A (slightly) dissenting view.

I

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Christian:

I'm coming late to this thread.

I am a huge Joe Henry fan, but I did feel that Civilians was a falling off from Scar and Tiny Voices, which I think are the pinnacles of his career to date. It felt brilliant but just a tad less urgent and personal than the two previous CDs.

Have you listened to them?

A (slightly) dissenting view.

I've enjoyed Civilians, Really, I have. I'm glad Andy and Josh used A&F to bring it to my attention. I'm putting the CD on right now, excited by this thread.

But I'm not as in love with it as you guys are. Don't expect good reasons for my reaction. I've played the CD numerous times, have marveled at some of the lyrics, but

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No, Greg, I haven't heard the others yet. I suspect I'd like them quite a bit. There was a sense here that Civilians was close to the level of Tiny Voices, but not quite there. In more recent posts. Civilians is being lumped in as part of a trio or quarter of Henry "masterpieces." I'm wondering if that was too tempting for the Henry fans here, all of whom, I thought, weren't quite as knocked out by Civilians as they were by the others.

But ya know, maybe I better go back through this thread and make sure I'm not misterpreting.

No, Greg, I haven't heard the others yet. I suspect I'd like them quite a bit. There was a sense here that Civilians was close to the level of Tiny Voices, but not quite there. In more recent posts. Civilians is being lumped in as part of a trio or quarter of Henry "masterpieces." I'm wondering if that was too tempting for the Henry fans here, all of whom, I thought, weren't quite as knocked out by Civilians as they were by the others.

But ya know, maybe I better go back through this thread and make sure I'm not misinterpreting.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 2 weeks later...

Remember: I'm just the messenger.

From Nate Chinen's New York Times review:

f Mr. Henry wants to suggest a less phlegmatic Tom Waits, as often seems the case here, he could stand to loosen up further. His lyrics can feel too artful, too self-conscious. His first verse on

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Josh Hurst wrote:

: I do not understand that review at all. Those seem like pretty darn great lyrics, to me.

Really? At best, they do nothing for me, but I find myself wondering if they might make more sense if I heard them sung. Songs are meant to be heard, not read, the same way plays are meant to be seen, not read.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Here's my review, which is also on the Paste website.

--------------------------------------------------------

Joe Henry is a world-weary romantic; too jaded by false claims and hyped hopes to swallow the vapid Hallmark Card cliches, too cognizant of the tiny miracles of everyday existence to write off the promise and redemptive power of love. That's the uneasy conundrum that informs every song on Blood From Stars, his eleventh album in an ongoing series of dispatches from the war-ravaged front lines of a life.

When we last heard from Henry on 2007's Civilians, he was warily surveying the eroding legacy of America, a big, blustering nation that seemed to have lost its way. But the weighty themes were wedded to some of the starkest, most minimal music of his career, as if he didn't want the lyrical urgency to be drowned out by the sonic whirlwind. In contrast, Blood From Stars shows off Henry's most personal, intimate songwriting, but this time out he's backed by a hyperactive band and a full horn section, by turns soothing and cacophonous. No one in contemporary pop music uses horns as tastefully or as menacingly as Joe Henry, and the sonic palette on display here rivals that of the dizzying, claustrophobic greatness of 2003's Tiny Voices.

The core Blood From Stars band is comprised of the usual suspects: Marc Ribot on guitar, Patrick Warren on keyboards, David Piltch on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums. They've worked with Henry for years now, and the interplay they've developed with one another borders on the telepathic. Henry gives them plenty of room to maneuver, too, and one of the great pleasures of the album is in listening to four virtuoso musicians strutting their stuff, and yet never stepping on one another.

Henry is working deep within the blues tradition on these songs, but these are blues that have been more informed by Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes than by Robert Johnson or Son House. Henry hangs his tunes on the blues framework, but the sounds and words are more reminiscent of the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance. "The Man I Keep Hid," the opening track, is typical, with its sonic hints of Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and its poetic, confessional tropes. "Somebody used my mouth and laughed out loud," he marvels midway through, and it's a wondrous, telling line that will speak to anyone who has ever experienced the shock that greets the wounding remark that seems to emerge, unbidden, from the murky, subterranean depths of the human soul. It's one of many lyrical delights on the album.

Henry's first-person narratives can never be taken at face value; this is a man, after all, who has given voice to the conflicted inner dialogues of Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. Somebody used my mouth, indeed. Nevertheless, many of the songs on Blood From Stars bear the unmistakable autobiographical imprint of someone who is wrestling with his inner demons. These are not so much love songs as marriage songs. They emerge a couple decades into the long, contentious, glorious dance, with no end in sight, and with all the old, familiar missteps and minor epiphanies on display. "My favorite cage," Henry calls it on the lovely torch song of the same name, crooning behind Ribot's Django-flavored gypsy guitar arpeggios, and it's a fitting metaphor for the themes he explores throughout these thirteen tracks.

On the album's most beautiful song, the shimmering "Channel," Henry fully explores the relational conundrums; pissed off, wanting to escape, desiring to change the channel or turn off the power switch altogether, and yet recognizing the severe mercy at work that tames his desperation and disarray. It's a lovely, disarming track, the kind of musical marital counseling manual that ought to be required listening for jazz fans and newlyweds alike.

It's serious stuff, to be sure, and yet there is a lightness and grace in these songs that transcends the sometimes portentous themes. In "Progress of Love" Henry moves from the personal to the global for the first and only time, and he addresses that big, blustering nation that so preoccupied him throughout Civilians:

We say "never forget" and mean "never forgive"

No, never as long as ever we live,

It offends our dead to surrender all this,

To even think we might go on --

And freedom doesn't need to be free when it sells

Like ocean waves offered from inside of shells

We bet the farm trying to ring its bells

While love still goes for a song

And just to prove it, he follows that up with with an impossibly romantic instrumental showcase for his son Levon's smoky sax, the kind of smoldering babymaker ballad that Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz used to toss off in the late '50s. It's the perfect antidote to the angst and self-examination, and it suggests some simple truths: Relax. Take it easy. It's nothing that a little candlelight and Merlot can't address.

Such is the genius of Blood From Stars. It's the work of a poetic asshole who is well loved, and grace has the final word. I'm tempted to call it a stone cold masterpiece, but there's nothing cold about it. It's a big, open-hearted, warm paean to the hazards and triumphs of love, human and divine. There's no use separating the two, Joe Henry seems to be telling us. The human is illumined by the flickering light of something better and outside ourselves, and the divine is given substance and form by messy, redemptive relationships. It's the truest album I've heard this year, and the best.

Edited by Andy Whitman
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I'm among the dissenters too, Christian. I've just never "gotten" this dude. Ever. First there's the voice. A "less phlegmatic" Tom Waits? Hmm, that's a kind description.

When white men use heavily affected voices to sing music rooted in the blues/jazz tradition it gives me the heebee jeebees. Nails on a chalk board. I dont hear "soul" when I hear Mr. Henry, i hear someone trying too hard to emote. Sadly that device is a deal-breaker.

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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When white men use heavily affected voices to sing music rooted in the blues/jazz tradition it gives me the heebee jeebees. Nails on a chalk board. I dont hear "soul" when I hear Mr. Henry, i hear someone trying too hard to emote. Sadly that device is a deal-breaker.

This is the same voice he's used on his earlier, alt. country albums too. Maybe it's his singing voice. Should he have not have toed into jazz/blues/roots territory because his skin is light in color?

EDIT: For what it's worth Greg, I'm not trying to get off topic; just saying that while I understand where you're coming from, it IS Henry's singing voice. It's not like just started sounding like this so he could adopt some identity crisis Delta blues gimmick.

Edited by Jason Panella
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Well look, he's aping a style of singing on Blood From Stars that is blatantly rooted in a particular ethic tradition. Da rulez with that are:

1) ape all you want so long as you're convincing

2) or dont ape at all, respect the tradition--even borrow from it-- but attack it in your own unique way

There have been countless great moments in modern music history where white men tried to sing like black men... and pulled it off. This isn't one of them, in my opinion.

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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Well look, he's aping a style of singing on Blood From Stars that is blatantly rooted in a particular ethic tradition. Da rulez with that are:

1) ape all you want so long as you're convincing

2) or dont ape at all, respect the tradition--even borrow from it-- but attack it in your own unique way

There have been countless great moments in modern music history where white men tried to sing like black men... and pulled it off. This isn't one of them, in my opinion.

I don't think he's trying to sing like a black man. I think he's trying to sing like Joe Henry. He sounds like he always has, including when he was making folk and alt-country music.

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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. I do know that he writes better songs than anybody making music these days. Anybody.
I hear ya, senor.

Leaving the issue of Henry's voice for a moment... Is this considered a "masterpiece" largely based on his literary/lyrical contributions? I guess what I'm reading is that Henry really traverses some insightful, poignant, profound territory once again, etc... I get that. Sometimes what i extract from reviewers at A&F is that lyrical content of an album is the most hefty consideration. Nothing wrong with that, if this is the case. I mean, we've had this discussion here before on the "can a song be called 'great' if it has crummy lyrics?" thread. I'm just personally from the "MOST 'great' songs have crummy lyrics" camp.

I've had Blood From Stars for a few weeks. In listening to any album, lyrical considerations are always last on my list of priorities.(Crappy lyrics rarely destroy a good song for me, but "great" lyrics frequently do) Approaching Blood From Stars from that vantage point I have concluded nothing particularly remarkable about the album at all. I hearfirst and foremost the vocal delivery, which i already mentioned is not very compelling at all. The tunes? Eh... I mean the compositions are pleasant, i suppose, and mildly evocative in a standard smoky midnight bar kinda way... the playing certainly solid, but nothing that strikes me as particularly memorable or distinct AT ALL.

I suppose Darius Rucker is also at fault for adopting a twangy voice and singing country music?
Darius is singing the way he has always sung. The only thing that makes his album "country" is the subtle use of pedal steel in most of the tunes.

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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Well, Josh, i never claimed Joe Henry's singing had changed. I said he was aping a certain ethnic affectation. I really don't think that is debatable. If you think that is Joe's "natural" voice, i assure you it is not. It's a stylistic choice he has made with his limited range and tone. That's cool. Every singer uses their limitations and makes deliberate choices about how to best exploit them . When he used that "soul" device on funky, indie pop/rock on his older material, the technique was passable for me (thinking Great Lake or Skin and Teeth on Fuse) But couched in the more traditional blues/jazz/soul setting of his latter stuff, i offer a resounding "fail".

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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Not really sure how we're defining a "natural" singing style-- or how you can claim to know his natural style with such certainty-- but I do readily admit that the way he sings is a style he's cultivated over the years, to some extent, simply because he's always sung that way. I do not think, however, that he could really sing any other way, these days-- even if he wanted to. It's his "natural" voice in the sense that it's simply the way he sings.

At any rate. Andy is right to say that this is a fairly subjective question. I am heartened to note that so many here are moved by his music, but of course I don't hold it against those who aren't. Different strokes, etc.

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