Friday, August 14, 2009

Joe Henry album review

Joe Henry
Blood From Stars

Joe Henry is hard to pin down. Starting in the late ‘80s, his early albums were steeped in alt-country and acoustic folk. After working with celebrated producer/artists T-Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois, Henry’s music veered in a more atmospheric direction. He became a sonic architect, deftly using samples and loops, touching upon blues, funk and jazz rock and luring horn legends like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman into his studio. 1996’s stark Trampoline featured Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton, while 2001’s Scar, included the tango “Stop,” which sister-in-law Madonna refashioned into her hit “Don’t Tell Me.”

In the interim, Henry segued into an acclaimed production career (Solomon Burke) and his tunes were sought by daring film directors. The cinema is often intertwined with Henry’s creative process. He builds albums in terms of themes, character and scope. Past efforts like 1999’s stellar Fuse have had a “calm before the storm” quality. That definitely holds true on Henry’s majestic 11th studio release Blood From Stars.

It opens with a stately piano instrumental performed by Jason Moran and is followed by the Dixieland jazz of “The Man I Keep Hid.” Here, Henry sings highly personal, yet witty lyrics (“somebody used my mouth and laughed out loud”) and lets teenage son Levon take the reigns on saxophone. Marc Ribot provides beautiful Spanish guitar on “This is My Favorite Cage,” while haunting highlight “Death to the Storm” is propelled by a gospel chorus courtesy of Chocolate Genius (Bruce Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions”).

Elsewhere, a New Orleans vibe takes over “Bellwether,” the jazzy reverb rock on “Suit on a Frame” recalls Radiohead’s experimentalism and the plaintive closer “Coda” finds Henry turning in more dramatic vocals than usual. Truly evocative, this is tailor-made for the NPR and coffeehouse set.

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