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!

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.

Joe Henry interview on WHYY

WHYY's (Philadelphia) Marty Moss-Coane recently interviewed JH, covering a host of topics including Reverie, his solo work and his producing career.  It's a fantastic interview – one of the best I've heard – and you'll get to hear "Room At Arles" and "Tomorrow Is October" from the new album.

Visit WHYY's website or download the podcast interview from iTunes.

New Joe Henry bio, by Andy Whitman

Andy Whitman has written a rather wonderful new bio to accompany the press for Joe Henry's new album Reverie (due October 11 from Anti-).  Whitman is a frequent contributor to Paste and Christianity Today and, alongside writers like Josh Hurst, has been a great supporter of JH's work for many years.  Enjoy…

If an artist is known by the company he keeps, then Joe Henry must have baffled more than a few people. Over a career that spans more than two decades, the critically acclaimed songwriter and Grammy-winning producer has recorded albums that have been loosely and inaccurately categorized as rock, folk, jazz, and alt-country, and has worked with artists as diverse as Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, The Jayhawks, Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Brad Mehldau, Mavis Staples, and Madonna. Good luck trying to find the common musical denominator in those lists. Perhaps “great” is the best one can do, and Joe Henry is probably quite content to keep it that way.

Reverie, Henry’s twelfth album, continues the eclectic, uncategorizable streak, and is the latest installment in willful genre obliteration and poetic exploration. Like most of the albums he’s made for the past decade, Reverie is lounge music of a sort, but it’s music from the coolest lounge in the universe, the one where the piano player quotes T.S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler before last call, and where the patrons all drink their bourbon neat and play Tom Waits on the jukebox between sets. Call it lounge noir if you must, but whatever it is it’s desperate, and desperately tender, tinged with an aching sadness and the flicker of hope, with the increasing awareness that the small dramas enacted here and now are not really small at all, and that they echo and ripple through our lives.

Aided and abetted by the musicians who have now played with him for the better part of a decade – drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Piltch, pianist Keefus Ciancia, and guitarist Marc Ribot – Joe Henry unfurls his songs of memory and longing, cinematic detail and impressionistic transcendence. Like the best poets, his imagery is both unequivocally explicit and sublimely grand, attuned to big themes even as he limns the interchangeable days of ordinary people. He captures tiny, specific moments with a master painter’s precision – an old Henry Fonda film projected against the side of a bank, the back door of a hotel propped open by a kitchen worker’s foot – but those moments serve as gateways to something deeper and richer; seemingly insignificant gestures and memories transformed into epiphanies of self-awareness and compassion toward the wider world. That’s not bad for a piano trio with a gonzo guitarist. Or for a man whose phrasing is a bit like Sinatra’s, but who writes the blues like Langston Hughes.

The evolution has been anything but linear. The early albums, deeply indebted to Bob Dylan and folk-rock anthems, gave way to sparse, acoustic ruminations, which gave way to pedal steel and poetry, which gave way in turn to whatever it is that Joe Henry has been doing since Trampoline, the 1996 album that marked a transitional turning point. Mostly he makes a lovely racket, the music reminiscent of both Tom Waits’ trashcan symphonies and the great improvisational piano trios of Duke Ellington and Bill Evans.

There are love songs on these albums, inevitably, and they sound like the songs of real people in real relationships, people who bicker and snipe at one another, who can’t stand one another, and who often can’t stand themselves, but who recognize the glory and the sweetness of the light when they see it. And there are songs written in other voices. Joe Henry is anything but a reliable narrator, and his storytelling voice is as likely to reflect the mind of a creepy pedophile at a swimming pool, or a desperate drug addict, as it is an award-winning, urbane songwriter named Joe Henry. The songs stand alone and together, each a self-contained little poetic gem, but each also commenting on the others. The images recur and shift, and the same phrase takes on a different meaning in a different context. In other words, this is a man who still makes albums as albums. Remember those?

Mostly these are the songs of conflicted human beings, and nobody writes songs about conflicted human beings better than Joe Henry. A few albums back he wrote one about Richard Pryor that pretty much set the standard for how to portray self-absorbed jerks and geniuses who inhabit the same body, then he did it all over again with a song about Charlie Parker, surely nobody’s idea of a saint, but a marvelously gifted musician who was touched by the divine just the same. He does it on Reverie with a song about the sad, suicidal genius Vic Chesnutt, a paraplegic musician and songwriter of uncommon wit and humor, and a close observer of twisted humanity.

This is the mysterious, seductive alchemy of Joe Henry’s music. “My hands are wet from walking,” Henry sings, this time in the voice of Vic Chesnutt in his wheelchair, and the world opens up, as it tends to do in his songs, in unexpected and startling ways. He’s been doing this for a long time now, but the epiphanies are always fresh and new.


New Joe Henry track “Odetta” featured on All Songs Considered

Reverie_cover Along with the official press release for the new Joe Henry album Reverie (due Oct. 11 on Anti-), NPR's All Songs Considered blog is featuring a track from the album, "Odetta".

That should sufficiently uncork our collective excitement, for today at least.

And here's the official press release, considerably different (okay, duller) than what we heard from JH himself a few months ago:

Revered musician and producer JOE HENRY is set to release a captivating new album entitled Reverie this October 11 via Anti- Records. It stands as a career high point.

HENRY is an acclaimed solo artist with 12 critically heralded albums to his credit including 2009’s masterful Blood From Stars. He is also a multi Grammy winning producer with credits that include Solomon Burke's 2002 album Don't Give Up On Me, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album as well as works by esteemed artists such as Bettye LaVette, Mose Allison, Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco, and an additional Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album with the 2010 album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

HENRY’s new album Reverie is an all-acoustic production, though also a raw and raucous and messy affair. As HENRY explains, “I knew it should be stripped and lean but not demur, sonically speaking; in black and white, but not without red blood in its veins.”

The record came to fruition when HENRY and his fellow musicians convened in HENRY’s basement studio for three days of exploration. Next the great guitarist Marc Ribot joined with “his particular and wiry racquet” for a few songs. There was some additional lost-world underscoring from singer Jean McClain, and a brief soliloquy given air and a smear of lipstick by Patrick Warren’s pump organ. The final touch occured when the song “Piano Furnace” was sent to Dublin so singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, for whom Henry had just produced an album, could illuminate a few words with her indelible spirit.

The result is an album more lifelike –fuming and nervously ticking— than any HENRY has managed. It is also a work that addresses, albeit subtly, some profound themes. “This album speaks about time,” HENRY elaborates, “The great river that reminds us we are buoyant after all, as its moving current lifts us by the chin and just off of the balls of our feet, while we strain to dig our toes into the sandy ground. I am not convinced that any song exists without some knowing nod in its direction. And so with Reverie I am nodding, then –to time, but also to all the love, hope, despair, and revelation that stands naked inside its weather.”