Friday, February 6, 2009

Joe Henry

You know how certain albums become the soundtrack for periods your life? I just automatically assume this is true for everyone, but when I talk to others about it, I realize that not everyone sets their life to music. I can return to certain albums like Led Zeppelin III (you know, the "acoustic" Zep album?), Bob Dylan's Desire, Inner City Front by Cockburn, or U2's October and each will transport me back to a specific time in my life when it was the soundtrack. This is even true for Out of the Blue, by ELO, which I can't listen to without thinking of the summer of '78 and working at Old Faithful. I remember the deadheads in the kitchen threatened murder every time I put it on. I still like ELO, and I still don't much like the Grateful Dead.

Recently I've been listening to this:

This is poetry, which I suppose could technically be said of all music. So, since this is my blog, I'll claim I think this is good poetry. Really good. Joe Henry's music is evocative of Tom waits without the gravel. I also hear echoes of Randy Newman. In his haunting remake of "When you wish upon a Star" from the children's compilation Mary Had a Little Amp I'm reminded of the much-missed (by me) Harry Nilsson. In places he reminds me of beat poetry, maybe because of the obvious jazz influences. The song "Parker's Mood" is in tribute to Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman plays on his earlier tunes "Scar" and "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation" (which is as phenomenal a song as the title suggests.) Here's a sampling of lyrics from Civilians:

The carriage horses stamp and fume
Until all color's gone,
They leave the street in black and white
And bring the evening coming on.
Lovers tug their way out of gloves
Out of shoes, and gray chiffon,
The driver pulls his blanket high
And pretends to look beyond.

Oh, pray for you, pray for me.
Sing it like a song -
Life is short but, by the grace of God,
This night is long

from "Civilians"

or this:

lovers laugh and cross this way
weaving out into the street
it seems we never were so young
or it was never quite so sweet
but the world is always beautiful
when its seen in full retreat
the worst of life looks beautiful
as it slips away in full retreat

from "God Only Knows"

The centerpiece of the album is the tune "Our Song," in which the narrator says

I saw Willie Mays
At a Scottsdale Home Depot
Looking at Garage Door Springs
At the far end of the 14th row
His wife stood there beside him
She was quiet and they both were proud
I gave them room but was close enough
That I heard him when he said out loud

This was my country
This was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it's ending wrong

This was my country
This frightful and this angry land
But it's my right if the worst of it might
Still somehow make me a better man

The song is a beautiful meditation on what is right and wrong about our time. I have added it to my playlist, which you can listen to in the sidebar. I'd like to know what you think.

As I did a little poking around, I discovered some interesting Joe Henry trivia. He's a highly respected producer of some albums I really like, like Aimee Mann's The Forgotten Arm, the Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint collaboration The River in Reverse, and the multi-artist soul & gospel album I Believe to my Soul. He knew the famous killer Jeffrey Dahmler in junior high. He went to high school with Madonna and has been married to her younger sister, Melanie, since 1987. Madonna has recorded a couple of his songs, and the two performed the number "Guilty by Association" for Sweet Relief II. Joe Henry sounds nothing like Madonna.

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