Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Joe Henry – Blood from Stars – Anti-

This year's best blues album that isn't a blues record and the finest jazz record that isn't a jazz album.

Published on September 29, 2009

Joe Henry – Blood from Stars – Anti-

Joe Henry – Blood from Stars – Anti- 937762, 57:13 ****:

(Joe Henry – vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, producer; Jay Bellerose – drums, percussion; Keefus Ciancia – keyboards, piano, vibraphone; Levon Henry – tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; David Piltch – electric bass; Marc Ribot – electric, acoustic and gut string guitars, bowed banjo, coronet; Patrick Warren – upright and tack pianos, field organ, keyboards; Jennifer Condos – electric bass (track 12); Mark Hatch – flugelhorn (track 8); Marc Anthony Thompson – additional vocals; Jason Moran – piano (track 1))

Joe Henry’s latest outing, Blood from Stars, is this year’s best blues album that isn’t a blues record and the finest jazz record that isn’t a jazz album. What does that mean? It connotes the California-based singer/songwriter – to use an obsolete description that only scratches the surface – has melded blues influences, jazz inspirations and other elements that equal one of the most compelling pop constructions of the last twelve months.

Some listeners may recognize Henry from his extensive and successful career as a producer. He recently worked on Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi which was reviewed here on Audiophile Audition – and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s A Stranger Here. Henry has also produced Solomon Burke (Don’t Give Up on Me won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues album of 2002), Elvis Costello and Bettye LaVette.  Just as importantly, Henry has been crafting his own acutely individual solo undertakings for two decades.

Blood from Stars is a literate – but not necessarily literary – discourse on relationships that is expressed via precise rhythms and cadences – the heart’s natural momentum if you will – and an artful stitching of horns, banjo, marching drum, piano, darkness and much more. There is both physicality and metaphor in Henry’s stories, where characters speak of hidden personas, the urge to change their names and the storms inside their souls while digging wells, lighting lamps and cutting grass.

Jazz pianist Jason Moran opens with the floating, psalm-like "Prelude: Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down," which inaugurates the record like an overture or preface. Its an ephemeral etude that acts as a papery memory that hovers or drifts into and out of the other songs, either literally or in spirit form. It is a perfect initiation into the mysterious blues and jazz piece, "The Man I Keep Hid." The music whispers of remoter times – Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans or William Kennedy’s Albany –  but Henry’s voice and Marc Ribot’s eerie guitar embellishments put the narrative resolutely in the present. As Ribot’s coronet and Levon Henry’s saxophone multiple the sense of a ghostly past, Henry reveals a protagonist with impaired desire who declares, "I say I have changed/And prove I don’t."

One of the most picturesque creations is the flickering "Channel" where Henry seeks epiphany as he explores commitment perplexity. He takes a microscope to the lies that border on torment ("I want my story straight," he nearly pleads, "but all the others bend") and discloses how ultimately difficult even the healthiest marriages can sometimes be: "I love you/With all due desperation and disarray," he proclaims. The overcast melody is spurred along by Keefus Ciancia’s vibrant piano, Jay Bellerose’s percussion and Ribot’s hallucinatory electric guitar tone that is as meaningful as moonlight. "Channel" is a skittish and bewitched track: a salon song for a midnight carnival’s final routine.

On "Death to the Storm" Henry depicts his own perception of the blues structure. While he employs the blues as a lyrical and sonic template, Henry uses a poet’s sensibility to adapt the form as a direction for his own conscious framework. He repeats the title line like a signifying mantra, rendering a feeling of dissolution that is echoed by Ribot’s fuzzy electric guitar that webs through Henry’s repetitive phrases. Henry also transmutes instruments into seemingly different ones: a bowed banjo becomes a junkyard wind chime and a tack piano transforms into a zither. But it is Bellerose who brings the brightest discernment of impending doom with his liquid-fueled, tumbling drum rolls that encroach like fissured thunder.

Folk-blues permeates "All Blues Hail Mary," which begins in a traditional blues configuration that is lent credence by Henry’s infallible insight, "All the blues sing of love and death and you." Eventually the arrangement fluxes into a scratchy ambient resonance which implies concealed industrial glimpses, as if Henry was soundtracking for a future David Lynch film: the cut’s final minute verges on sheltered disassociation that edges toward the subconscious.

Henry replicates jazz-ensnared saloon bar blues on the Tom Waits-esque "Bellwether." Strings and someone pounding on a wooden door – or is that somebody hammering on a cross? – commences the course. Once more Ribot colors the proceedings with his muted coronet as Ciancia links in single-note piano lines and Bellerose serves up splintered percussive crashes. Meanwhile Henry illustrates the hopeless disposition of a man aspiring to love and happiness who is instead stuck with obsession and pale prospects for transformation.

The accomplished musicians Henry chose for this hour-long outing all yield their singular voices to the music-making process. One exemplary example is the instrumental "Over Her Shoulder," which showcases the silken expression and dulcet phrasing of Levon Henry – Joe Henry’s son – on saxophone. As Henry notes, "It wasn’t a matter of me thinking it would be cute to put him on a record. He was just the musician I most wanted to hear in that chair." During the cut, which his father wrote specifically for him, Levon Henry’s soprano sax washes and whisks with melodic agility and a succinct grace akin to Ben Webster or Gerry Mulligan. Levon’s smoldering riffs are also radiant during "Truce," a blues ballad about the compromises and calamity that can plague relationships and the likeminded rock tune "Stars," where nocturnal moments can be both close-lipped and rebuffed.

At the end, on "Coda: Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down," Henry and his fellow musicians reiterate what has come before. Moran’s piano inflection circles back while Ribot’s luminous electric guitar edifies Henry’s parting words of damaged optimism, "Shadow’s fear covers you like clothes/But likewise so does love and grace."

The CD packaging is also lustrous. Henry’s reflective liner notes convey his creative imagination since they are steeped in allegory, simile and allusion: they are as important as the printed lyrics in defining Henry’s viewpoints and perspectives. Special mention must also be extended for Henry’s production and the auditory skills of engineer Ryan Freeland. The sonic palette is both tasteful and ominous: horns afford comforting displays of clarity but then backdropped percussion or guitar effects – that appear to fall from the ceiling or navigate up from the basement – contribute cacophony or menace. Sometimes arrangements create claustrophobic identities and at other times there is an open-faced facility spacious as the ocean. In other hands this swell and ebb would seem schismed but Henry and Freeland never falter and on each subsequent listening new musical ingredients and references wait to be discovered.


1. Prelude: Light No Lamp
2. The Man I Keep Hid
3. Channel
4. This Is My Favorite Cage
5. Death to the Storm
6. All Blues Hail Mary
7. Bellwether
8. Progress of Love
9. Over Her Shoulder
10. Suit on a Frame
11. Truce
12. Stars
13. Coda: Light No Lamp

— Doug Simpson

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