There’s a reason why nearly every artist worth the price of the boots they stand in has courted Joe Henry to produce their records over the past five years–Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Allen Troussaint, Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, Mary Gauthier–earning Henry the Grammy recognition that his own brilliant music sadly fails to garner. I guess until Joe Henry agrees to tongue Madonna on live TV, he won’t have a spot at the Grammies, a show that’s become a profoundly embarrassing pageant of T & A that, at this point, is as much a celebration of music as it is a tutorial in soft porn (You’d think the Grammy people might get a clue after posting such shitty ratings in the past several years. Yes, you might think so, but only after forgetting that this is the same Grammies that totally ignored both The Strokes’s debut album as well as The White Stripes’s White Blood Cells. Fuck them.) Then again, Henry has good reason not to tongue Madonna–on live TV or elsewhere–he is, after all, married to her sister. Yes, Joe Henry is the Material Girl’s bro-in-law, but no one’s holding that against him, now. We’re all friends here.
An artist’s authenticity is easily gauged by the company he keeps, one of many measurements that confirms Joe Henry’s position as an underground badass. Take Mary Guathier, for instance, a woman who was abandoned at birth by a mother she never met, stole her parents’ car at 15 and ran away from home, spent her 18th birthday in jail and more time than that in halfway houses and rehab clinics. Writing her first song at 35 and cashing in her stake in a Cajun restaurant in Boston to pursue a music career (Gauthier hails from New Orleans), she now enjoys such accolades as an “Indie CD of the Year” nod from the NY Times for her third album, Filth and Fire. Her latest, Between Daylight and Dark, flickers with a ghostly darkness only Joe Henry could summon.
Others, like Mann or Costello, need no introduction, while soul luminaries like Lavette and Burke have Henry to thank for tossing them a life raft amid their flagging careers the way only great producers can (Burke’s Henry-produced Don’t Give Up On Me earned a Grammy, and Henry turned Lavette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise into the musical resurrection of the decade. The lion-voiced Lavette had spent a long-overlooked career floundering in the shadows of giants whose terrain she roamed, i.e., Aretha Franklin. It’s about time Lavette got some of that R-E-S-P-E-C-T the Queen herself loves to wail about.
Solomon Burke: “None of Us Are Free,” Don’t Give Up on Me (2002)
But the true tragedy amid this tale of unsung talent is the neglect of Henry’s own solo material. While Henry himself seems perfectly satisfied making music on the margins, it’s no less pathetic that his catalog is found only on a succession of indie labels while pretenders like Pete Yorn cut records for Columbia. Even so, Henry has more recently found his home on the now-legendary Anti Records, a subsidiary of Epitaph and home to other brilliant victims of an increasingly conglomeratized industry, such as Tom Waits and Merle Haggard.
Admittedly, most of Henry’s records range from unfocused (Murder of Crows) to uneven (Tiny Voices, Civilians); but nearly every one of them still packs its precious punch of genius (like “Time is A Lion” from 2007’s Civilians). There are exceptions, of course. 2001’s frequently devastating Scar–for which Henry solicited the services of fiery jazz great Ornette Coleman–produced, among a handful of other essential tracks, a funky, Waits-ish song called “Stop” that brought in plenty of dough when his uber-in-law turned it into a ginormous hit in the new clothes of a different title (“Don’t Tell Me”) and typically overblown production of her 2000 album, Music (Madonna’s version of the song came out before Henry’s because her version was based off an unfinished demo Henry sent her before he released it on his own album later on.) Coleman took “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful nation” to heights no Henry album has explored before, and Joe’s smooth hand begged no assistance on spare piano pieces like “Lock and Key” or “Cold Enough to Cross,” whispery jazz-lounge gems in which Henry’s smoky voice snows softly over the oblivion of the heart.
There is absolutely no disputing, however, that 1999’s Fuse is the one record which transcends anything else the man has done–either as a producer or a performer–a TKO of stinging songwriting and trip-hop atmospherics that earned the album Top Ten CDs of the Year honors with the NY Times. Songs like “Skin And teeth,” “Want Too Much” (produced by Daniel Lanois) or “Fat” sound as if Joe Henry stuffed the night sky into a silk bag–moon, stars and all–and ran off into the studio with it (you might also recognize “Angels” from the Felicity soundtrack.) The lonely trumpets, thumping bass and funky, echoing guitar licks sound like they were played by street-musicians who just happened to pass Henry by as he sang in a dark alley at night under a winter rain. A desperate solitude pervades every layer of Fuse, particularly on the stand-out “Like She Was A Hammer.” No one grabs the throat with a line and a good beat the way this man does; just take a look at this writing:
And like she was the railroad
Like she was the lost world
Like she was the big hand turning back the scene.
Like she was the raging flower in the brick-yard
Like she was the only thing holding on to me.
There is no revolution
without boots and song.
Her foot falls like a banner day
and I will song along.
Like she was the anvil
Like she was the fire bell
Like she was the fever I wear like a crown.
Like she was the bomb scare
threatening with heaven,
Like she was the only thing hold me to the ground.
Joe Henry is an instant private treasure to all who do the man the worthy favor of coughing up some dough and picking up an album of his. I strongly recommend beginning with Fuse, sampling 1997’s Trampoline, and then diving into the jazzy shipwreck of Scar. If you’re disappointed by anything on those three albums, you just aren’t listening. Period.