Joe Henry Round-Up: Rodney Crowell, Loudon Wainwright III

Every December I pause to take a look back at all the music that stood out to me in the preceding year, to celebrate a few favorites and try to figure out which records might just stand the test of time. In doing so, sometimes I find that particular trends or themes emerge, either in my own listening habits or in the world of music in general. Last year, for example, was a great year for back-to-basics, down-and-dirty rock and roll bands; groups like the Arctic Monkeys, White Stripes, Spoon, and Dinosaur, Jr. didn’t necessarily blaze any trails, but they assembled something that was vital, vibrant, in-the-moment from pieces of rock and roll history. They made the kinds of records that remind us of why we love rock music in the first place.

But there was something else that stood out, as well– the fact that Joe Henry, producer extraordinaire, officially became the go-to guy for singer/songwriter albums, stealing the crown from his one-time mentor T-Bone Burnett. There was, of course, Henry’s own self-produced record, Civilians, an expertly-crafted musical state of the union that remains my favorite recording of 2007. But there was also Strange Weirdos, by Loudon Wainwright III, and Mary Gauthier’s terrific Between the Daylight and the Dark. All three of these albums were produced by Henry, and featured roughly the same band of backing musicians. (Wainwright sang harmonies on the other two records, for that matter!) The same studio talent meant that all three albums were, in some sense, of a piece, but they were also very distinct in some key ways– Henry’s was a contemplative, understated masterpiece of poetry and songcraft; Wainwright’s was a deliriously joyful, celebratory album of small, simple pleasures; and Gauthier’s was a dark, brooding album of bluesy, boozy storytelling.

Henry’s production style and the unique talents of his musical henchmen have almost made the man a genre unto himself– there’s no denying the similar aesthetics to those three records, no matter how vivid the differences might be– so it should come as no surprise that, in 2008, he’s produced another pair of singer-songwriters albums, working again with the same studio band, and that those two albums exist at roughly the same musical crossroad as the three from last year. Similar though they may be, however– and to be sure, there’s no mistaking these productions as the work of anyone but Henry– each of these two records, like the three from last year, has its own unique character, and ultimately stands on its own. Both are exemplary in terms of production and studio craft, but of course, half of Henry’s brilliance is in how selective he is with the talent he chooses to work with, and these two albums are knockouts thanks to their songwriting, first and foremost.

One of the new Joe Henry joints is Rodney Crowell’s Sex and Gasoline, an album that’s every bit as snarky and droll as its title suggests. Recorded in a very brief studio session, cut live on the floor with Henry’s crack backing band, the album sounds a bit like a sequel to Civilians, which is both its greatest shortcoming and its greatest strength, as it means that the album sounds great and the songs are given sympathetic, unobtrusive arrangements, even if it also means that, every now and then, Henry’s familiar style is just a tiny bit too predictable. But that’s a very minor flaw, because this album distinguishes itself from other Henry productions in some crucial ways. It’s a significantly more upbeat and energetic album than the meditative Civilians, and it’s also much more country-oriented; clearly, this is the same Rodney Crowell who was once married to Roseanne Cash and dueted with her pops, Johnny. But his talents have always blurred the lines between genres, and this album is no exception. He covers a lot of ground on it, from simple country and folk songs to some strutting blues numbers, a gospel-tinged closer, and some laid-back, propulsive rock.

The record’s press material calls it an album about women, which is a bit like saying that Raging Bull is a film about boxing; most of these songs use women as its characters, but it’s not an album about gender politics so much as the human condition. There are mothers and daughters and lovers here– one song is actually about how Crowell wishes he could be a woman, if just for a day– and from there Crowell is able to offer up his most eloquent and reflective set of songs in years, one that’s filled with ruminations on love and sex and humanity in all its complexity. And what songs they are! Crowell has rarely written with such compassion and humor, and every track here is a gem. The title track opens the album with its feisty, country-rock momentum; “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” is as cheeky and irreverent as its title implies (but don’t tell Ben Stein); and the absolute album highlight, “I’ve Done All That I Can,” is a simple and heartbreaking ballad about fatherhood, performed as a duet between Crowell and Henry, himself a devoted dad.

Joe’s other joint is a second album with Loudon Wainwright, but this one’s a little different. Their first record together, Strange Weirdos, was the soundtrack to the film Knocked Up, though it was a strong enough album to stand on its own (and was much more rewarding than the movie, funny though it may have been). This new album, Recovery, isn’t a soundtrack to any movie, but one could almost call it the soundtrack to Wainwright’s career. Every song on it is culled from Wainwright’s first three records (with the exception of the closing track, “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” which comes from his fourth). This gives the album a distinct advantage– namely, that it can pull the very best songs from one of our very best songwriters. There are thirteen old-school Loudon tracks here, and each one is a gem, ranging from the sweet storytelling of “New Paint” to the misanthropic humor of “Old Friend,” from the punchdrunk humor of “The Drinking Song” to the wistful ache of “School Days.”

But there’s another advantage, as well– the fact that these songs, previously recorded as bare-bones, guy-and-a-guitar arrangements, are fleshed out here by Henry’s studio musicians, giving them a fuller, broader sound than ever before. This is, of course, relative– they’re still fairly sparse, and Henry’s production keeps the focus squarely on Loudon and his songs. But certainly there are some welcome embellishments, like the woozy guitar work on “The Drinking Song,” the banjo-and-mandolin bluegrass twist on “Black Uncle Remus,” and the graceful, elegant piano and steel guitar work that adds depth and dimension to the ballads.

But there’s still another advantage to this kind of collection: The sheer, simple delight of having all these songs arranged together like this. Wainwright and Henry didn’t pick these songs arbitrarily– they picked songs that take on new meaning now, forty years down the line, songs that have fermented with the years of wisdom and experience the singer has accumulated since writing them. Thus, it’s much more than just a collection of Loudon’s greatest hits– it’s a meaningful meditation on age and experience, on the life of an artist, on how our perceptions of love and humanity and creativity change with time. There are songs about the pursuit of fame that mean something very different now than they did when he was first setting out, and songs about relationships suddenly sound wistful, reflective, and wise.

It’s a fine, often stirring collection– a great addition to Wainwright’s body of work, and a nearly-flawless introduction to such a singular talent.

I’ll post longer, full-length reviews of both albums as their release dates draw closer. For now, I’ll note simply that they’re two additional arguments you could use to make the case for Joe Henry as the finest producer around for singer/songwriter albums. They’re also two of the best albums I’ve heard in 2008, which just might turn out the be The Year of Joe Henry, part 2.

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