Joe Henry’s first album — produced by Anton Fier and backed by a bunch of old-time rock stars (ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, ex-Allman Brother Chuck Leavell) — didn’t immediately establish the singer/guitarist as a potent artistic force. Henry makes an intelligent but characterless showing on Murder of Crows, a record whose solid material and styleless performances are as unassailable as they are unmemorable.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett and recorded live-to-two-track in a brief studio session with more sympathetic players, the acoustic Shuffletown is immeasurably better, a poetic statement whose evocative power and casual instrumental excellence recalls prime Van Morrison. Henry proves himself here to be a real singer, filling his plain voice with confident power and conveying the haunted power of someone who truly feels his lyrics.
With rustic backing from the Jayhawks, Henry maintains his stately charm on the handsome Short Man’s Room, walking a tradition-respecting bluegrass-strewn line between Dylan’s artfulness and Morrison’s emotionalism, with vivid side trips into sentimental storytelling. The country stylings are occasionally too self-conscious, and the title track sounds like a moldy Steve Goodman song, but “Last One Out,” an observant bar-room waltz, is gorgeous, as are the heartbreaking “A Friend to You,” the fiddle-accented “Best to Believe” and “One Shoe On,” an evocative ballad about death.
Kindness of the World demonstrates Henry’s disinclination to settle for a single way to present his songs. Backed by a pair of Jayhawks and several other acoustic instrumentalists, Henry heads down from the hills and aims towards the heart of old Nashville, surrounding a Tom T. Hall cover with similarly heart-tugging original ballads like “She Always Goes,” “This Close to You” (both of which sound like should-be standards) and “Kindness of the World,” done as a pedal steel-tinged duet with Victoria Williams. “Dead to the World,” however, is a solid rocker, and the simple arrangement of “Who Would Know” is built around piano and Dobro guitar. The songs are so fine that such eclecticism doesn’t call attention to itself; Kindness of the World sounds completely organic and thought-out.
The very-country Fireman’s Wedding gangs up the titular album track (from Kindness of the World), a pair of live recordings and two freshly cut studio covers, including an outstanding rendition of Merle Travis’ coal-mining classic “Dark as a Dungeon” with backing vocals by Billy Bragg.
Trampoline launches Henry into an entirely different orbit. Although some of the nine songs quietly revisit the solemn country and folk terrain of his past efforts, the extraordinary album has the idiosyncratic broadmindedness to employ Helmet’s Page Hamilton as its electric guitarist, cover Sly Stone’s “Let Me Have It All” as a fuzzy roots groove and set an opera singer loose in the background of “Flower Girl.” The record’s opening lines — “There’s something caught in my teeth/And a cricket that won’t let me sleep” (from “Bob & Ray”) — instantly set its unsettled tone, while short-story songs like “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash,” with the grim certitude in fate of a Nathanael West novella, tacks the ’40s/noir mood down so it can’t curl up around the edges. The wondrous Dylan-like title track announces “The floor will have its way, it seems…but this time I’m not coming down,” while “Medicine” promises “I’m straighter than a razor/Well anyway, I will be soon” in between patches of noise guitar aggression. Through it all, Henry keeps his head and sings his heart. A great record of depth and imagination.