Collapsing inside the ebb and flow of a Joe Henry composition is validation enough. But we’ll take a moment to humor those who require more backing to proclaim this former Michigander one of the best songwriters working today. Born in 1960, he spent the first five years of his life in North Carolina. His family moved to Atlanta and then Ohio, where he spent his elementary years as a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. Then came Michigan, where he met the Ciccone family, wrote “Don’t Tell Me” for Madonna and married her sister. He tried out both coasts, first in New York and then settling in California. He was part of Bob Dylan’s backing band on an episode of “Dharma and Greg.” He’s also played with Mick Taylor, T-Bone Burnett and Don Cherry.
Since the mid-’80s, the shape-shifting songwriter has waxed and waned between haunted slide-steel country rock, urban-chanteuse folk, dusty atmospherics, the hum of faded blues and jazz-cool funk — releasing album after album of solid beauty.
With the release of Scar, all that he’s attempted in the past culminates in his most lustrously romantic and artistically exhilarating release thus far.
To further the name drop whirlwind, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Brad Meldau, Marc Ribot and Ornette Coleman (!) all make guest appearances on Scar. It all boils down to a surprisingly soothing and stimulating mix. Whether you allow the mass of sound to wash over your ears and sweep you off your feet or you prefer to analyze the intricacies, every element is folded into the whole for a simultaneously relaxing and energizing listen. While the album stretches its fingers to original highs and lows for the most part, at times, it sounds a little too smooth, too easy, too much in the background: hence, the missing half star from a perfect score.
But that voice: A kinder and gentler Tom Waits, a more melancholic David Gray bundled in lush winter layers, the best of both Buckleys. Those arrangements: Stray-cat brass, guitar, piano, bass and drums free-falling into a web of strings, assembling a ghost town for the delusional disillusioned to wander throughout and weep in peace.
The complete package has an overall “cool” vibe to it. Sad, wintry jazz, mysterious and desolate. Smoky folk, raw and wrapped in a scratchy blues blanket. Even tango, in an “uncover” of the Madonna song he had written, this time, titled “Stop.” He waves and fuzzes electric in a ’70s jazz-funk number, “Nico Lost One Small Buddha.”
There are a number of tortured dirges with hopeful hooks of satisfied resignation as well: the title track included, in addition to a beautifully executed contradiction in “Mean Flower.”
And the reprise to “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” which was co-written with Coleman, grasps hold of a spirit and doesn’t let go, Coleman’s legendary sax — introduced by echoed and buzzed atmosphere and allowed to roam unchecked — forms a beautiful incorporation of a free-jazz solo into a “rock” album. Cool.
Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times staff music writer. E-mail her at [email protected].
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