Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour: An exclusive review by Josh Hurst

{Ed. note:  It is once again my great honor and pleasure to feature a review by Josh Hurst.  Over the years, Josh has written many thought-provoking pieces about the music of Joe Henry.  In this exclusive review of Invisible Hour (due on June 3), I feel safe in stating that Josh has outdone himself.  He has written not only an eloquent and thoughtful review of the new record, but he has highlighted the common thematic threads that bind much of Joe Henry’s music over the past decade.  It is, put simply, a breathtaking tribute to a stunner of an album.  

Profound thanks to Josh for the contribution.}

Invisible Hour by Joe Henry
A review by Josh Hurst

So sleep here with me
And I’ll keep you close
For now while I try
To live up to you.
You can’t see the challenge of this,
I suppose, but
Time is a dare
And I’m trying to.

jhenry_pic2_lgWith that final verse, Joe Henry flipped the script on one of his best songs (“Time is a Lion,” from the Civilians album). In a song lined with ticking clocks—the Angel of Death mentioned in the first verse, old age in the third, the setting sun in the bridge, and every beat sounding like a gutpunch reminder of time’s steady march—it’s telling that the final word goes not to the clock run out but to love’s transcendence of it; the choice to love actively and fearlessly is not rendered moot by time’s unfailing progress, but rather is made meaningful and urgent by the narrow window we have in which to get it right. This life is more than a tryout for the life to come, the song seems to tell us; what we do matters—every fucking bit of it—so we’d best get to doing, even as the clocks tick and the sun sets.

Joe Henry’s love songs are all written against the backdrop of the ephemeral, it seems to me, even when their central subject is timeless; his characters are acutely aware that this whole scheme could collapse at their feet at any moment. “How do you sing the blues?” Henry asked, in an essay he penned for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. “By simply opening your mouth while awake to the fact that one day it won’t any longer…. By simply intoning the word ‘forever’ with the wink and lilt of a promise, knowing full well there ain’t no such a thing.” None of Henry’s characters really seem to believe in ‘forever,’ not with any kind of conviction, but they open their mouths nevertheless—every roar and every whisper a protest against time’s ravages. Certainly it’s no great surprise that on Reverie—an album described by Henry as a meditation on time’s passage—the narrative eventually winds its way to a love song called “Unspeakable,” and all the clocks stop their ticking long enough for a moment of redemptive, transformative communion between two lovers.

Now comes Invisible Hour, which one might describe as an album about love over the long haul; about commitment; about the daily revelation of love not as feeling or fancy, but conscious choice for selflessness and boldness, for affirmation and self-discovery. Joe Henry suggests in his liner notes that the album is informed by marriage, and since I happen to be married I find this interpretation to be resonant—but you don’t have to take his reading of these songs as your own, and you certainly don’t have to take mine. What matters is that the characters on Invisible Hour are not new flames; their bonds are time-tested, faithful, sacred; they haven’t necessarily had any easy time of things, but they’ve at least had time. It is an album about—to borrow a phrase from Henry’s confederates in Over the Rhine—lifelong flings.

The album was almost titled Grave Angels, and that phrase still pops up in a couple of songs. In fact, there’s a song called “Grave Angels” that could be the record’s thesis statement. The song references autumn’s falling leaves, yet love burns bright even as time marches ever toward winter—the love shared between two people affirmed as holy and sublime. In what could be a rejoinder to the jaded narrator in “Heaven’s Escape,” from Reverie, the singer here calls it folly to deny the beautiful treachery of love in this temporal life; no matter what awaits us beyond the pale, what happens here is an end unto itself—and a sweet one:

When foolish we are
In the presence of God,
And what all his grave angels have done,
In love’s growling weather
If we’re dreaming together
Of a heaven,
Apart from this one,
Apart from our own.

Incidentally, Invisible Hour was written, performed, and produced by Joe Henry; one imagines that, were it a film and not a record, he might also serve as cinematographer, choreographer, gaffer, and best boy. It is the first of his albums that he has self-released, and the first since 1999’s Fuse to bear his own image on the cover, plus original candid photos of family members and bandmates adorning the inside artwork. Truthfully, he could have self-titled it and none of us would have raised an eyebrow. He has never sung with more conviction or clarity, never written songs that so deftly abide mystery while inviting emotional investment; they are funny and literary and seemingly closer to confessional singer-songwriting than the man has allowed himself to come in the past. Invisible Hour is the best conjuring of everything that Joe Henry does well, the surest and more generous he has ever been as a performer; in a catalog that’s filled with great recordings, none of them sounding much like any of the others, this one feels likely to become the consensus pick for his new high watermark.

Yet though it bears the unmistakable mark of its auteur, Invisible Hour also carries the easygoing grace and spontaneity that come from true collaboration. The sound of it is lush and folksy—a comparison to something like Blood on the Tracks or even Simon and Garfunkel records would prove truthful enough, though the edges are blurred with the kind of heavenly and erotic mysticism that marked Van Morrison’s work circa Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. It’s the most guitar-based Joe Henry album yet, its sound conjuring the magic and romance of stringed instruments playing off each other, and much of that is attributable to John Smith and Greg Leisz. The Milk Carton Kids are on hand to add tender vocal harmonies, giving the record an extra dimension; they suggest a record made to envelop us, to sweet us off our feet with its sensual pleasures. The rhythm section includes drummer Jay Bellerose and electric bassist Jennifer Condos (with Dave Piltch subbing in on the upright for a couple numbers), and they provide the record with more than just a solid foundation; Bellerose’s generous splashes of cymbals seem somehow to convey something of the record’s lushness, and also its openness and availability. (Curiously, there is no piano player here—an odd thing on a Joe Henry album.)

The feel of the album seems to be shaped most profoundly by the work of Levon Henry, who appears on almost every song playing reeds, often looping himself to lend the impression of a small horn section; what he does here is beyond category, sounding not really like conventional “jazz” playing but also not much like what you’d hear on a rock or an R&B record; there’s a playfulness to what he does (especially the giddy, Monk-like carnival of sounds on “Grave Angels”) that accentuates the elder Henry’s humor (which never gets enough attention), but more than anything he drives these songs deeper and deeper into the mystic. He brings a stormy act break to “Sign,” opens the heavens on “Swayed,” and lends “Plainspeak” an earthy sense of swing.

jhenry_pic4_lgIt is no accident, of course, that Invisible Hour is both an album about marriage and also an uncommonly autobiographical album for Joe Henry—or perhaps just one that’s made to seem that way: He’s always been a smoke-and-mirrors man, and it would surely be simplistic of us to assume that the central character in each of these songs is indeed Joe Henry himself. What can’t be doubted is that, with the strange elegance and abiding warmth of this recording, Henry is more open than ever—perhaps more zealous than ever—to be heard, and in many ways that’s what Invisible Hour is about: The need that each one of us has to be understood for who we are, not just for someone to listen to us with tender heart and attentive ear but for someone to offer affirmation to our cracked beauty, our secret earthbound hearts. The characters on Invisible Hour are all broken and brittle, and the simple acknowledgement of this allows some holy and healing light to shine through.

The tremendous “Plainspeak” is concerned with this. The Milk Carton Kids leave one of their biggest marks here, adding raucous gospel harmonies to a songwriter’s confession that sounds a bit frayed at the edges; the song is generous with metaphor but clear in its lamentation that, far too often, the artist’s words are not truly heard. “When I say a bird, I mean a bird!/ Nothing less and nothing more,” the singer offers, the lyric winsomely deadpan, but the line that it hinges on is rich with implications about what it is to be an artist, a lover, a human bring: “I just need you to hear me now.” (For those who have long been under the spell of Joe Henry’s music and mourned that his repute isn’t greater, the song is resonant on a whole other level.)

The spritely “Lead Me On,” with an elegant flourish of harmony from Lisa Hannigan, also speaks to hearing and understanding as the first steps toward affirmation—and toward love. “No one you can name/ Is just that one thing they have shown,” the song tells us, as though a reminder that compassion begins when we recognize and embrace another human with all the messy contradictions that doing so entails; not incidentally, the same song offers a bold declaration of consuming love: “This is my body/ Already broken for thee.” (That this is a religious allusion does more than suggest the presence of the sublime here, but not dogmatically; besides, by this point in the album, “Grave Angels” has already suggested that the stuff of committed human love is holy in and of itself.)

A couple of other album standouts bear witness to the same truths, and both are rather stunning feats of songwriting—albeit wildly different from one another. For sheer boldness, “Sign” takes its place alongside “Our Song” and “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” as one of the true skyscrapers in Joe Henry’s canon, a thing of staggering ambition and architectural grandeur. At nearly ten minutes it qualifies as an epic, verse after verse of prose piling on in the manner of Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, only with a narrative thread that’s easier to lay your hands to; perhaps Gabriel Marcia Marquez is the better comparison. To betray its ending—a dramatic, Rosebud flourish that suddenly reveals the song to be about something totally different than we might first suspect—would be a disservice to listener and album both, but suffice to say it speaks in a most glorious fashion to our collective need for active, present-tense love and affirmation, and of what darkness its absence can sow. (And so a song that initially seems to have little to do with marriage is actually a perfect thing for a record that is concerned with that most sacred, mystic, and transformative of human bonds.)

The title song is as quiet and as tender as “Sign” is roaring and epic, and as such its superhuman feats of songwriting initially prove elusive. The song—credited to Henry alongside Hannigan and the great novelist Colum McCann—begins with a narrator whose punchdrunk in love, bruised and battered but better for it, or at the very least unable to pull himself away. “And though it left me high and dry/ I know soon I will ask for more,” the fellow says—and then comes a verse that offers a wondrous evocation of lifelong love through what seems, at first, to be a mere hodgepodge of dichotomies and clichés:

Salt and sugar, tooth and nail,
Tongue and groove, and all for sale;
Thoughts and prayers, words and deeds,
Bruised and broken, spilling seeds—
Tar and feathers, clocks and spoons,
Falling shoes and flashing signs;
Fits and starts, and hearts and moons
That wane come either rain or shine.

There’s not an item in that series that isn’t evocative of love’s rough and tumble, which is really sort of staggering—but it’s the final verse that pierces the heart:

We all come into this world
Scared and bare, blue and curled—
And we all bring the knife we need
To sate our mouths and not concede
The love that stands a moving bridge
Where blood moved under skin and bone—
To feel a hum and come alive
In bodies that are not our own.

Here we’re taken back to “Animal Skin,” from the now-classic Tiny Voices (“I remember when love was something I craved/ But I settled for less, and all the comfort it gave”) in a song that posits love as a holy and redemptive thing, ours for the taking—but our own eyes too clouded by fear and self-preservation to truly see it in all its rafter-shaking power. We are born broken, too broken to know what’s good for us even when it stands a moving bridge before us; yet there is something transcendent and sublime when two such broken people cross that bridge together. The closing song, “Slide”—arguably the best thing here, a holy moment of a song that’s way out on the Astral Weeks tip—conjures a similar paradox in what’s immediately one of Henry’s best lines: “We’re dying to be other/ But we’d kill not to become.”

 “Every Sorrow” comes toward the end of the record, co-written with John Smith and quite possibly clocking in at a higher BPM than any other Joe Henry song; it’s a Jay Bellerose masterpiece, crashing and rumbling in a cascade of cymbals and kicking up a sick basement ruckus that’s reminiscent of Reverie, but more anthemic than anything that album gave us—yes, even “Odetta.” It’s a love song that could only have been written with time and distance—a marriage song, in other words, in which love is not tempered or diluted but rather is deepened by wisdom and experience:

Love may challenge all our senses,
Hold us tight within its fences—
But singing out, her gate swings open,
For all the world, so weak and broken,
A story giving all a framing,
A face that waits but for a naming…
After every sorrow comes a joy,
But every story knows one more.

jhenry_pic3_lgAs Invisible Hour unfolds its pleasures and its intricacies, more parallels become clear—as in how the epic narrative in “Sign” not only fits neatly into the rest of the album’s arc but is mirrored, both in the tranquil simplicity of “Alice” (as in Munro; the song doesn’t even last three minutes) and in the stark, holy-moment poetry of album opener “Sparrow,” which like “Sign” seems to unspool the story of a lifetime, but does so with an elegant (and riddling) economy. And then there are moments that bring the big picture into clarity, like “Swayed.” “He who cannot be seduced cannot be saved/ And I hang ready to be swayed,” it goes; truly, exposing the vulnerabilities of our secret hearts, one to another, is our only rescue—which makes this most open and vulnerable of Joe Henry albums all the more moving.

Of course, there’s another Joe Henry song that echoes throughout this latest hour of music, and it is perhaps his most beloved: “I rise and fall with you/ And you can’t fail me now,” he sang once before, and Invisible Hour is nothing if not a collection of love songs that look back over the rising and the falling, over the rough and tumble (“salt and sugar, tooth and nail…”). And true enough: In its elegance and its grit, its reaching upward and inward for the sublime and its kicking up of earth and dust, it offers a bruised and beating heart to us; doesn’t mask the pain of doing so but does bear glorious witness to the transformation that it brings; bids us do the same. Like the love it speaks of, the record stands ready to seduce and change us, if only we allow it.

Over The Rhine – ‘Meet Me At The Edge Of The World’: A Review by Josh Hurst

{Ed. note:  Once again, writer and critic Josh Hurst has generously offered up a review for the site, this time for Over The Rhine's sprawling double CD Meet Me At The Edge Of The World.  Many thanks to him for the letting us enjoy it here…}

OverTheRhineColor2-Darrin-Ballman1Long before we knew anything else about Over the Rhine’s 2013 LP—before we (or they, possibly) knew that it was a double album, before we knew that its songs would be harvested and preserved in a South Pasadena basement studio, before we even knew that it would arrive in our mailboxes in 2013—we were told that the album would be called The Farm. It is not a very evocative title, and there is a feeling of rightness to the album’s finished title Meet Me at the Edge of the World, which perfectly encapsulates the particular and peculiar mystery of this nineteen-song cycle; listeners will doubtless feel that this was meant to be the record’s title all along, that it was only briefly christened The Farm because its real name had not yet fully revealed itself.

But in the world of Over the Rhine, names—even temporary ones—always mean something: The Farm, placeholder though it may be, is a title that strikes me as quintessentially Over the Rhine. It might have almost been a fitting title for this album because the album is—yes—rooted in a very specific piece of real estate, an actual Ohio farm that’s playfully referred to by its caretakers as Nowhere (Now Here?)—but also because, with Over the Rhine, there has always been a certain workmanlike quality to the writing and recording of songs. I don’t mean that in a bad way: There are musicians who are more like architects than farmhands, raising towers forged from imagination and ego in equal measure, ambition tempered with indulgence. Over the Rhine—who are, we all know by now, husband/wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist—have been given a garden of songs to tend and to harvest, and they do so with a genuinely affecting warmth and faithfulness, growing their songs from season to season, whether lovingly homemade recordings or gussied-up films for radio. They do what they do, one always feels, for the profoundly simple reason that it’s the job they’ve been given, the particular piece of earth they’ve been asked to till. Few musicians seem to share their profound sense of vocation.

So this new album, then: It was recorded with captain/producer Joe Henry and his crew, in Joe’s basement studio. He also produced The Long Surrender, which came out in 2011 and is probably still my personal favorite Over the Rhine record, though this one is just as fully-formed and is even more sweeping in its scope. He is such a simpatico producer that one imagines he might have become a full-fledged member of the band, had he been living in the right Ohio town at the right time in the 1980s. And it’s not hard to imagine what Linford and Karin see in him; like them, Joe Henry is a songwriter whose compositions always sound like he plucked them clean out of the air, even though he probably puts a great deal of hard work and elbow grease into making them sound so effortless and organic. 

Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a collection of country music, I think, more than any other Over the Rhine album to date. I don’t just say that because it is music about the country, nor because there is a heavy dose of steel guitar here, blurring the edges of these songs with mystery and grace. I say it because the songs are simple and direct, their emotions immediately apparent, the lyrics personal and unadorned. (What I mean to say is, Linford’s Leonard Cohen/Blonde on Blonde fixations never seem to surface here; there is no “Infamous Love Song.”)

The vibe is rustic, ramshackle, and dusty; previous Over the Rhine albums have generally been marked by Linford’s piano and Karin’s singing, presented with clarity and precision, but Meet Me feels like a new chapter, one in which the traditional roles of the band need not be so clearly-defined as they have been in the past. The piano plays a smaller role here than on any Over the Rhine album since—well, Eve, probably. Linford and Karin develop some rich harmonies throughout the album; he has never been more present as a singer, and indeed, the two share their first-ever recorded duet (discounting things like “Don’t Wait for Tom,” I reckon) at the beginning of Disc 2. The cumulative effect is a kind of mystic vibe that replaces the last album’s swirling, Astral Weeks feel with a more rooted and earthy barnyard hum—with, I should say, some heavy Big Pink vibes, especially in the Garth Hudson-styled organ that accents “Called Home.” (There is an actual Band song on the second half of the album, too.)

Press-photo-11-hiIt is a warmer and more assured album than their previous double, Ohio, and more sophisticated, to boot. Double albums are known for their great sprawl, but this is no White Album, nor even a Sign ‘o’ the Times; the nine songs that make up the first disc are as tight and as unified a sequence as Over the Rhine has ever released, developing lyrical motifs and sustaining a consistent mood even as the songs dart down the occasional side road—the handclap funk on “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body,” for example. The second disc is a continuation of the first and the same themes spill over, but it’s also a little more loose and unencumbered, its edges left wild. A couple of brief instrumentals add character and context to the album—though they’re each just a minute long, they feel essential to the fabric of this record—and the Band song (“It Don’t Make No Difference”) is re-imagined as something that’s simultaneously easygoing and heartbreaking; they make it their own, even while tipping their hat to some of this collection’s musical and spiritual touchstones. 

I used the word “heartbreaking,” and I’m not the first person to do so in the context of an Over the Rhine album. I remember seeing the band perform, in the summer when they released their jubilant and celebratory Trumpet Child album, and Karin joked at the time that the band would soon return to writing their songs of sadness and melancholy. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is not a melancholy record, though, and in fact it sounds to me like the sound of contentment. It’s an album about home, written from the perspective of two travelers who have found that very place; they may still miss it, as they take their songs out into the world, but it’s an affectionate longing for a destination they know and love, not the restlessness of two seekers. (Likewise: The song called “I’d Want You” is not a song of loneliness for an unnamed, undiscovered lover, it doesn’t seem to me, but one of longing and desire for a particular beloved.)

The record’s contentedness does not mean it is frivolous, or even that it is marked by a prevailing sense of good cheer; there is a warmth of love, acceptance, and familiarity here that illuminates that record’s darkest corners, and bolsters the listener’s spirits as he allows these mysteries to wash over him. And indeed, the album’s mantra to “leave the edges wild”—which appears in many of its songs, on both discs—bids us to avoid compartmentalizing the record too neatly. Contented though Linford and Karin sound to me, then, it is worth noting that the album makes multiple mentions to sacrifices made; this sense of home is hard-won and long fought for, it seems. I also hear several mentions of mortality here; the title of the song “Called Home” takes on two meanings, and a song on the second disc considers the question that all long-time lovers face sooner or later, if they’re honest with themselves—“who’s gonna bury who?” 

The performances and the production ensure that there are small, sensual pleasures to be found throughout the album—that Garth Hudson organ on “Called Home,” the reliable thump of Jay Bellerose’s drums, the seductive slow burn of “I’d Want You,” and on down the line. “Highland County” is an amiable country shuffle; “Wait,” which recaptures the incredible holy-moment feel of the last album’s “Rave On,” pays off the album’s patient and luxurious pacing with something so aching, you can feel it on your skin. The duet on “All Over Ohio” might just make it the essential Over the Rhine song, Linford’s plainspoken drawl and Karin’s soulful gale perfectly encapsulating the strange and wondrous alchemy that has for so long been the group’s calling card.

OvertheRhineColor-byDarrinBallmanOn and on goes the list: “Earthbound Love Song,” a backporch folk song that references Johnny and June (the patron saints of musical couples, I dare say), wonders if joy and redemption are as real on Earth as they are in the sweet hereafter, a gospel flourish that grounds the album’s themes of contented domesticity. “Cuyahoga” is one of the minute-long instrumentals, but it feels like it could go on forever, steadily flowing like the river that gives it its name; “The Birds of Ohio,” meanwhile, is a playful piano showcase. (I mention them both to emphasize that they are not “interludes” or throwaways, despite their brevity.) And in the band’s grand tradition of perfect album closers, which draw together all the thematic strands that have preceded, there is “Favorite Time of Light.” The last album ended with a spiritual of human brokenness, “All My Favorite People,” and this one is a kind of a spiritual as well, I think—only this time, it’s a quietly stirring witness to the joys that arise from little things, small moments of grace, shared together.

I said before that, in the world of Over the Rhine, names are important. Meet Me at the Edge of the World—the album formerly known as The Farm—could have very easily been titled Over the Rhine, and none of us would have had to ask why. (It is a masterwork in the truest sense, that is.) This feels like the most personal set of songs the band has ever recorded, the one that’s the most them—and yes, I’ve heard Drunkard’s Prayer. Its affection for a specific piece of land—called Nowhere; called Home—is something that only Linford and Karin could have conjured, yet it is also universal in its resonance. This band—restless in leaving life’s edges wild, but sounding assured of the work that’s theirs to do—bids the listener to sit, be still, to revel in small joys, to find meaning in vocation and in homes both heavenward and earthbound. By which I mean only to say that, like every other record released by Over the Rhine, this one feels like a unique an invaluable gift.

Hugh Laurie – ‘Didn’t It Rain’: A Review by Josh Hurst

[Ed. note: Josh Hurst has written often and eloquently about the work of Joe Henry (he is prominently linked in the "Essential Reading" column of this blog).  From my perspective, Josh is the world's foremost authority on all things JH.  About a year ago, he ceased maintenance of his wonderful music review blog, The Hurst Review.  So it is my great honor to present his extensive review for Hugh Laurie's new record Didn't It Rain (released in the UK in May and hopefully in the US very soon).  Many thanks to Mr. Hurst for the contribution – enjoy!]

DidntItRainHugh Laurie – Didn't It Rain

Reviewed by Josh Hurst

Didn’t it Rain—the second album of American blues and folk songs from Hugh Laurie—begins with a performance of “The St. Louis Blues”—but I will caution you in advance that it does not contain anywhere close to all of the song’s sung verses. If you want to hear the song sprawled out in all its glory, I recommend an album called Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, where Satch gives us a “St. Louis Blues” for the ages. Here, only two sung verses appear, following an extended instrumental prologue that imagines the song as gleeful Dixieland—swinging harder than anything on the first Hugh Laurie album (something that could be said about the entirety of Didn’t it Rain, just about) and rocking and rolling harder than most anything that passes for rock and roll these days.

When the first vocals do enter the song, they pick up on one of the middle verses, and it first it seems like an odd way to begin a record—not with anything that really resembles a beginning at all, but rather sounding as though we’re coming in on the middle of a conversation. Which, of course, we are: This is a song that is nearly 100 years old, and Laurie and his band are picking up where the song was left off. They are taking their verses just as rightly and freely as Louis did on W.C. Handy; others, I am quite sure, will follow, grabbing the thread from Laurie and adding their own perspectives to the song’s rich legacy.

There are other ways in which Didn’t it Rain sounds like it picks up where something was left off. It advances the central argument of Laurie’s first album, Let Them Talk, which was that Hugh Laurie is legit, and that he has as much grounds to sing these songs as Louis Armstrong, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Frank Sinatra, or Mick Jagger. But if the first record was a platform for Hugh Laurie, Didn’t it Rain assumes the matter of his blues cred more or less settled, and instead functions as a platform for, and a celebration of, the music that he so loves.

There is no other way to explain this album’s utter egolessness—the way in which Laurie surrounds himself with such a colorful parade of “guest singers,” guests who sometimes overshadow their host, who seems quite happily to cede the spotlight and disappear into the music. (And to think some would have us believe that these albums are vanity projects—whatever that even means.) There is also no other way to explain the festive mood and careening energy here; the handsome and regal Let Them Talk was and is a fine album, but hearing it in the context of this new one almost makes it seem a bit academic by comparison. That album was an act of discovery; this one, a celebration.

It’s a celebration—a real rager—that’s been going on for more than a century, and it picks up here midway through the aforementioned “St. Louis Blues,” where the first words are sung not by Hugh Laurie but by Sister Jean McClain. She can sing the hell out of any gospel or blues or whatever-else song you care to name, and she knocks a couple of tracks out of the park here. She is joined by a stunning singer from Guatemala, Gabby Moreno, who does a coy bilingual duet with Laurie on “Kiss of Fire” (the furthest we venture outside of Let Them Talk’s narrower focus on classic New Orleans blues, I think) and nearly steals the album with a smoldering and astonishing “The Weed Smoker’s Dream.” It’s my early vote for album highlight, and that’s saying something, because Taj Mahal is also here, singing a song that he loves, “Vicksburg Blues.” He does it with warm, easygoing authority—owning the song but not overpowering it, rather savoring and cherishing the very act of signing it, which in a way captures the spirit of Didn’t it Rain as well as anything else included on it.

I should also mention that Hugh Laurie is working once again with producer Joe Henry; this is Laurie’s second LP and also the second that he has made with Joe, and already it is impossible for me to imagine that there could ever be a Hugh Laurie album without Joe Henry’s name somewhere on it. I would sooner believe that Wes Anderson might make a movie without Bill Murray. They work well together, and I think it’s because they’re united behind a shared worldview—one in which it is simply impossible to have too many versions of “The St. Louis Blues” or “Careless Love,” no matter how many thousands of times they’ve both been performed, and to suggest otherwise is simply baffling.

And sure enough: When the parade of songs and singers slows a bit in the album’s more leisurely second half, Laurie lends his own voice to a take on “Careless Love,” and it’s a delight. We have heard the song many times before, but we have never heard it sung by Hugh Laurie, and that makes this version worthwhile—more than that, priceless. He doesn’t reinvent it but rather mines it for further revelation—revelation being something in no short supply, on this or any other song on the album—and brings out tenderness that’s disarming and wonderful.

Laurie also sings lead on a spritely and soulful version of “Junker’s Blues” and the intoxicated, and intoxicating, “Wild Honey,” two songs that have “The Weed Smoker’s Dream” between them—and it that makes it sound like there is an awful lot of narcotic use and mental impairment on this record, it’s because there is, and why shouldn’t there be? Didn’t it Rain is a party, after all—a jubilant testimony to the sweet seduction of love and heartache, music and drink, all manner of holy vices.

Laurie sings a song called “Evenin,’” as well, and no song on the record does more to make Let Them Talk feel like a warm-up lap. On that album, Laurie and Henry shook the dust off these old tunes, but here the music struts and swaggers, Laurie growls like he is having the time of his life, and in the middle of the song there’s an explosion of reeds that seems to take its cue from Henry’s own albums Tiny Voices and Blood from Stars—what more could we ask for, from this or any other record?

At the end of the record, Laurie does “One for My Baby,” and his version takes the song back from the saloons; when Sinatra sang it for Only the Lonely, he was tortured, but Laurie sounds comfortable, even content with the melancholy. (This, I am coming to think, is one of his great gifts as an interpretive singer; there is real warmth and joy even on songs of sadness and desolation—and I think the joy comes from the sheer act of singing.)

Then Sister Jean has a showstopper with “I Hate a Man Like You” before Laurie unveils the album’s neatest trick: Following a dozen songs that are plucked from the backpages of American song, polished up and made to sound like they could have been written yesterday, Laurie takes a comparatively newer number—Alan Price’s “Changes”—and makes it sound like a traditional Mardis Gras number. Yes, the mood is, once more, a festive one—but if the lyric is about people going through changes, I rather think Laurie is celebrating the songs that stay with us through thick and thin. This is a party decades in the making, and Didn’t it Rain only gives us further reason to rejoice and be glad.



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.