Albums

Joe Henry @ Largo (October 11, 2011; Los Angeles)

LargoWell, I thought a little time and distance might reflect some objectivity on my part.  Alas, I suppose you should no more expect a "show review" here any more than you might expect an "album review."

However, I think an objective observer would agree that the Coronet Theatre - Largo's current home – is undoubtedly one of the finest listening rooms in North America (or the world?), much as the old Largo location was.  The staff is courteous and professional, while reminding everyone that chatter and photography are not welcome.  At around 150 seats, the Coronet still qualifies as ridiculously intimate, and what better venue could possibly host the live premiere of Reverie in its entirety?

The rough edges of the new record shone through in the live performance, though with world class musicians like Jay Bellerose, David Piltch and Keefus Ciancia in tow, one could hardly expect anything less than stellar.  Having never seen Joe Henry live before (no, seriously), I was perhaps a bit surprised how animated and energetic he was as singer and guitarist.  But otherwise, the evening was predictably beautiful and revelatory, and – for an event that can now be marked off my personal bucket list – absolutely exceeded all of my expectations.

The trip was all the more memorable since I got the chance to meet and hang out a bit with fellow blogger Josh Hurst of The Hurst Review.  We got to chat with both Joe himself and Jay Bellerose, who seems to me a quiet and thoughtful guy, not necessarily traits you would expect in such a monster drummer.  Of course, Jay is in such a class of his own as a musician, one should probably expect the unexpected.  I'm also pretty sure he owns the world's biggest tambourine.

I hope it goes without saying that if Joe Henry makes it to your town, jump at the chance to see him.

JOE HENRY’S ‘REVERIE’ OUT NOW

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Well, the long wait is over, and Reverie hits the proverbial record racks today.  I'm pretty sure this one will be universally embraced by the Joe Henry faithful, and by all means, please feel free to drop me a line or – better yet – let us read your reactions to the new record in the comments section of the blog.

You can order the album from most of your usual outlets (CD: Amazon, Anti-, Europe; Vinyl: Amazon, Anti-, MusicDirect; Digital: iTunes, Amazon).  The LP set also ships with a CD copy (though, strangely, no liner notes).

JH's website has also gotten a makeover in honor of the album's release.  Kudos to Brian Ed Sauer, the tireless site administrator (VERY nice job — I like the updated look).

As is generally the case, reviews for a new JH come in at a thoughtful pace (I'm sure owing to the fact that critics want to soak in all the details, right?).  I'll try to keep this listing of reviews and articles somewhat updated throughout the week…

Four stars from American Songwriter

American Songwriter's Hal Horowitz awards Joe Henry's Reverie four stars:

In Reverie, Joe Henry and his group have created a raw, raucous and messy masterpiece. It emerges from the heart and soul of musicians locked into each other’s vibe, playing off each other and allowed the freedom to wander within the haunting music’s beautiful, imposing, expansive yet stark and often subtle boundaries.

Andy Whitman’s review of ‘Reverie’

Writer Andy Whitman has reviewed Reverie over at his blog.  You might recall that Whitman wrote the latest press bio for Joe Henry.  

I sort of think of him and Josh Hurst as the two leading authorities on JH's music.  So you won't generally be surprised by their positive reviews of his work, but I bet there's a good chance you'll gain some deeper insight.

And don't forget also that Jeffrey Overstreet recently published a similarly insightful review over at Response magazine.

Josh Hurst’s epic review of ‘Reverie’

I suppose you may have guessed that writer Josh Hurst is an occasional correspondent of mine.  I don't recall precisely when we started exchanging musical ideas (I'm sure it was either his writing about Joe Henry or Sam Phillips that initially tipped me off to his work), but we have kept in touch over the years.  He is the tireless curator of his own music review site The Hurst Review and often contributes to Christianity Today and several other publications.

You are not likely to find a more eloquent dissector of Joe Henry's work.  Further proving this point, he has now written what will almost certainly be the definitive analysis of Reverie.

Happily, he and I will both be in LA next week for JH's record release show at Largo, giving me yet another reason to be excited for the trip.

‘Reverie’: My (initial) thoughts

(Ed. note:  I recently began pounding away at the keyboard in yet another futile attempt to somehow adequately express my reaction to a Joe Henry album.  Happily, I discovered that I had nearly completed the following essay nearly a month ago.  Based on that timetable, this was written after spending a month with Reverie.  Since that time, my opinion has solidified but certainly doesn't differ in many ways from the words I originally wrote.  With that in mind, I reserve the right to revise and embellish my opinion in the future.  But I thought I should at least enter these thoughts into the public record.)

Joe Henry gathers in the basement of Garfield House with three trusted allies. Four days will be allotted for these sessions, with no particular endgame in mind. These might be the first sessions for an album or – as it mostly turns out – the sessions for the complete album. The windows are thrown open, allowing the neighborhood to hear their work and, more crucially, allowing us, the listeners, to hear the neighborhood. The spring breeze, nearby dogs and passing cars will collectively become the unofficial fifth instrument for these sessions.

The above description would not likely accompany the press release for any other album. You might assume from the description that Reverie is little more than a collection of raw demos or song sketches, and for any other artist, this would likely be the case. However, it seems to be that Joe Henry has been gently nudging himself and his musicians in this direction for years. He has often said that, as a producer and an artist, he regards all recording techniques valid so long as they are in the service of offering an emotional connection to the listener on the other end. A very egalitarian notion, but it’s clear that Henry prefers to create records that capture the magic of the songs being discovered in the moment. This is not so much a question of speed – though Henry creates records at a comparatively breathtaking pace – but a matter of focus and immersion.

On Reverie, his third now in a trilogy of albums recorded at Garfield House (quite literally his Basement Tapes), Henry and his crew chose to operate with an abundance of economy. So yes, it is “raw” and “acoustic” and “intimate” – as the NPR journalists will tell you. But it is also rich and layered, just like most other Henry albums. The minimalism of instruments provides ample space for the musicians to explore and weave their respective magic, perhaps more so than any of his records since Scar. Never before has Henry’s own guitar work featured so prominently, and Keefus Ciancia’s piano adds depth and color throughout. As always, the rhythm section of Jay Bellerose and David Piltch creates absolute splendor where one often least expects it.

Saying that Reverie is Henry’s best album is no easier than saying it might be my favorite. Subjecting his records to such inadequate rankings serves little purpose, ignoring the fact that the artist is still batting a thousand, at least since Tiny Voices (or several albums prior). Indeed, it might be my favorite – just as on certain days it might be Civilians, or Tiny Voices, or Blood From Stars. It is almost as if Henry is merely adding chapters to a great American novel, and this latest installment illuminates previous ones merely by daring to depart in key ways from its predecessors. Reverie would be stunning merely for Henry’s dogged refusal to repeat himself. The songs on Reverie, however, appear imbued with more hard-won wisdom than is even usual for his work. Perhaps it is the unadorned presentation of the songs, chiseled to a fine point by some of the finest musicians on the planet. Or perhaps we are continuing to witness the work of a peerless artist, not operating at the top of his game but trudging uphill toward it.

Hear ‘Reverie’ in its entirety on NPR!

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Well, the countdown to October 11 officially begins with the inevitable NPR stream of Reverie.

I guess I should diclose that I've been listening to it for about two months, and though I'm extremely wary to refer to any JH album as his best, it feels appropriate to at least say that Reverie captures an element of magic that you are unlikely to hear on any other record this year (or any other year, for that matter).

Hear it for yourself here.