; Tangled Up In Blue: meet joe henry

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

meet joe henry

Great lyrics that flow poetically while fitting naturally into the song aren’t easy, and such songwriters very often go unnoticed. Take Joe Henry, for example. If you know of him at all, it might be because he is married to the sister of Madonna, but in a perfect world he would be right up there with John Prine, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan in terms of great songwriting.

But Joe’s problem might be that he is constantly reinventing himself. His early singer-songwriter material—best represented by the two albums I want to recommend, 1992’s Short Man’s Room and Kindness of the World, which was released the following year—gave way to drum machine and sample experimentation on 1996’s Trampoline and again on 1999’s Fuse, and then a heavy dose of jazz on 2001’s Scar (with an appearance by Ornette Coleman) and 2003’s Tiny Voices.

You can’t blame an artist for branching out, and Henry has certainly kept his amazing songwriting ability throughout his many reincarnations, but a part of me is always hoping that he delves back into his Americana roots for old time’s sake.

Henry essentially uses the Jayhawks for his back up band on both Short Man and Kindness at a time when that band was also at its zenith, but the songs would’ve worked if Henry had sat alone in the bathroom and played them into a Mr. Microphone. Fold out the CD sleeve and randomly point at the printed lyrics and you will find a line that any given songwriter would kill for. I have never been to Michigan, but the way he croons “ In Sault Sainte Marie the hills glow without the hand of God” has done more to motivate me to visit than any commercial or ad in a travel magazine. Any songwriter in Nashville would’ve taken a line like “And if I never hear another word from you, then I’ll remember that too, as something you once said” and made it into a damn fine hook, but Henry casually places it near the end of “Reckless Child” with equal weight to the rest of the song.

Those are a couple of examples from Short Man, but I would probably have to go with Kindness if I had to choose between the two. There is something about the sense of loss and steel guitar waltz of “Third Reel” that gets me a little choked up every time, and it sets the listener up perfectly the upbeat and driving “Dead to the World” that immediately follows and begins side two.
I mention Joe Henry now because I always revisit him in the fall and spring. I went digging into my chaotic mountain of CDs for these two this morning, and I have yet to find my copy of Short Man. If you go looking for your own copy of either of these—and I highly recommend that you do—you’ll probably have to find a second-hand copy through Amazon, but there is something poetic in that too.


Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

Thanks for the heads up. I'll definitely check him out.

I remember in the mid 80s I was tellng everyone about this greasy, skinny junkie that was worth listening to. His name was (is) Steve Earle.

I'm going to see if I can get something of Henry's on Napster.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

Thanks Rex.

It appears that I'm out another $20.00 as both Short Man and Kindness are on iTunes in ye ol' music store.

Anyone you tell me is as worthy a lyricist as Tom Waits is worth some coin.

And thanks for joinin' up over here.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Rex, you are perfect for this! I'm glad that you're here talking about music. That makes my whole evening.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Glen Dean said...

Welcome Rex. Aunt B. is right.

5:57 PM  
Blogger John H said...

A blog like this works for so many reasons...one of the best is that everyone comes in with their own stash of favorites, some well known, some not so well known. We all like to share our stash.

I had heard of Joe Henry, but I always mixed him up with Dave henry, and with a gun on my head, I couldn't tell you one song that he wrote..at least until tonight.

I've already downloaded (legally!) several cuts from 'Kindness". I've got a new favorite song in 'Dead to the World'.

Several posts below, Dolphin 'shares' Dar Williams with us..I'd heard a couple of songs by her I really liked but I hadn't thought about exploring any deeper.

I'm sure there are a lot more of these gems in our own playbook.

Thanks to Rex L for the 'o' Henry moment and thanks to Glen for giving me a place to dig for some new diamonds.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Rex L. Camino said...

Gracias, all. This blog was a great idea, and I am happy to be able to throw in my 2 cents here and there.

From some of the other songwriters mentioned here I figured that Joe would be well recieved. His earlier albums--Talk of Heaven, Murder of Crows (I love that Title), and Shuffletown (more latin influenced)--are also worth checking out.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

Rex...There's tons of Henry on Napster(legal) I've downloaded a few tracks, and look forward to listening to them this evening.

BTW...is anyone else a member of Napster? For 9.95 a month you can d/l all the songs you want--totally legal.

It's perfect for people over here...so when someone says, "Have you heard...?" You click a button and you hear it 2 minutes later.

4:47 PM  

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