When lists are compiled of great musical artists from Michigan, Joe Henry is almost never mentioned. But make no mistake about it: the North Carolina-born but Michigan-raised Henry is one of the finest musical mavericks to ever come out of the Mitten. These days, Henry may best be known for his production work — which over the last several years, in addition to work with numerous contemporary artists, has featured "comeback" albums by some of the most important figures in American music, including Solomon Burke, Detroit's own Bettye LaVette, Mose Allison (whose upcoming album is currently being helmed by Henry) and several with New Orleans great Allen Toussaint (see W. Kim Heron's review elsewhere on this page). Either that, or pundits like to mention that he has the distinction of being Madonna's brother-in-law (he's married to Melanie Ciccone) — but really, who cares about that? Because as a singer-songwriter, Henry's own material is as important as anyone he's worked with to date.
And Blood From Stars may be his best album yet. Those solely familiar with Henry's critically acclaimed early albums from the '80s and '90s — which were mostly rock 'n' roll oriented — may be shocked at how the artist has evolved over the years, a musical evolution that is still in progress. The new disc finds him utilizing a whole band this time, including modern jazz pianist Jason Moran and great experimental jazz guitarist Marc Ribot — but this is hardly a jazz album, at least not in the classic sense. Currently, Henry is creating a sort of "boho jazz," somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits (it actually falls somewhere in between Waits' earlier, more traditional material and his latter-day, more experimental, Captain Beefheart-influenced sound) ... if Waits were to meet up with Kurt Weill and then added a healthy dose of Willie Dixon-style blues. But then, there are pop elements as well, as demonstrated on the mighty fine "Progress of Love," one of the LP's highlights. Even vocally, Henry now fits somewhere in between Waits (particularly in his Louis Armstrong-ish inflections) and Randy Newman.
The album kicks off with an instrumental, "Prelude: Light No Lamp," featuring Moran delivering a lovely piano line that's occasionally reminiscent of Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings"; the album ends with a coda vocal version of the same song. In between are 11 tracks that might best be described as "musical short stories" (Henry is nothing if not literate). "The Man I Keep Hid" is a full-throttle distorto Dixieland explosion, with the band sounding distinctly like New Orleans. Elsewhere, we get somber orchestral rock ("Channel"), acoustic-based, with synthesizer strings, ballads ("This Is My Favorite Cage" — the Randy Newman approach is very strong here), and even what might best be described as psychedelic jazz jungle music ("Suit on a Frame").
Throughout it all, just like a great bluesman, Henry offers up often grim yet effective imagery ("Georgia looks covered with blood from the air," he sings at one point, perhaps giving a clue to the LP's title). Interestingly, this music proves to be contrarily dark but spirited, unpleasant but equally pleasant, and intense but very playful all at the same time. And the fact the album was recorded in five days, and then mixed in six, makes the end result here seem almost miraculous.
With Blood from Stars, then, on both a musical and literary level, this Michigander proves that he is a pure and native American son.