Culturespill » Joe Henry

Meet Joe Henry (It’s About Damned Time)

29th May

Henry live

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.

Additional samples:

Civilians

Scare Me to Death

Parker’s Mood

 

Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.