Joe Henry: The Producer

Joe Henry with Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Joe Henry with Ramblin' Jack Elliott

My friend Andy Whitman recently wrote that Joe Henry just might be the Artist of the Decade. That’s no small compliment after a decade that’s given us landmark recordings from Radiohead, Outkast, and Tom Waits– to name just three– but who am I to disagree? As Andy notes, Henry’s released three albums over the past decade, with a fourth on the way, and out of those four, three are stone, five-star classics; 2001’s Scar, meanwhile, is merely a four-and-a-half-star near-masterpiece. If anyone else has a track record so sterling, I’m not familiar with them.

But even that formidible body of work is just part of what makes Joe Henry the champ. You see, he does a bit of producing work, as well. And in its own way, that work is just as essential as the albums he makes under his own name. So, in celebration of Joe and in honor of his upcoming Blood from Stars, here’s my countdown of the ten finest examples of his gifts as a producer– and make no mistake: He’s as gifted as any producer working today. For the purposes of this list, I’m not going to count his own records. That said, these are all thoroughly, crucially, Joe Henry albums– and all are excellent.

10. Aimee Mann
The Forgotten Arm
When Aimee Mann set to making her rock-and-roll concept album, she told Paste that she wanted a producer for whom The Beatles weren’t the sole reference point, the beginning and the end, of rock music. Who she got was Joe Henry, and their collaboration stands out as unique in both of their catalogs: Henry invited his band into the studio and they knocked these songs out live from the floor, and the result is vibrant, muscular rock that makes faint reference to various recordings from the 1970s but doesn’t sound particularly similar to any one artist. This one rocks harder than anything Henry’s been involved with, outside his own Tiny Voices and Blood from Stars, and if you think rock and roll this fluid and free is a minor achievement, just listen to how fussy Mann’s other albums tend to be and you’ll realize how liberating her work with Henry was at the time.

09. Susan Tedeschi
Hope and Desire
Susan Tedeschi is often pigeonholed as a blues singer, but in truth the lady can sing anything— something Joe Henry helped her to prove when he oversaw this fine album, helping her to select material that was varied and eclectic, and bringing to each the appropriate arrangements without distracting from the singer’s own voice, which remains the centerpiece. Henry is unparalleled when it comes to recording vocalists like Tedeschi, and this album’s the proof.

08. Mary Gauthier
Between Daylight and Dark
Henry’s approach as a producer has sometimes been described as “less as more”– and while that’s a bit reductionist, it’s generally fairly accurate. Working with Mary Gauthier, he helps the singer locate the deep, damaged heart of the blues, in the process proving that you don’t need a lot of glitz or polish to make the blues come alive; in fact, just the opposite is true, as Henry surrounds Gauthier with a sympathetic and understated band that highlights every nook and cranny in her voice, and underscores every painful word she writes.

07. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint
The River in Reverse
This record is a minor miracle: Vintage Allen Toussaint chesnuts and a handful of brand new compositions become a celebration of New Orleans, an angry protest of the response to Hurricane Katrina, a showcase for the unique gifts of both artists involved, and a collaboration in the truest sense. Henry comes into play with that last point– as the supervisor and facilitator of this ingenious pairing, he keeps everyone on equal footing, and the result is a brilliant balancing act. The music itself sounds great, crisp and alive, and it’s easily the best thing Costello‘s done in fifteen years or more. Henry even coaxes the reclusive Toussaint back to the microphone, itself fairly miraculous.

06. Bettye LaVette
I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise
A lot of times, veteran artists try to stage a comeback with an album full of star-studded cameos, gimmicky arrangements, and pandering song selections. Joe Henry knows better: In re-introducing the great soul singer Bettye LaVette to American listeners, he simply relied on great songs– classy material that showcases the singer’s power and versatility– and a stellar backing band. Beyond that, he simply sat back and let LaVette do the rest– and given what an incredible singer she is, that was precisely the right thing to do. This is how every comeback album should be approached.

05. Loudon Wainwright III
LaVette’s wasn’t the only career Henry jumpstarted this decade; he also breathed new life into Loudon Wainwright. Wainwright had never been recorded particularly well before working with Henry, but Joe’s backing band and deft touch made for  the two most full-sounding, spirited recordings of Wainwright’s career: 2007’s joyous Strange Weirdos, and this gem, which re-interprets many of Loudon’s classic songs, but instead of guy-and-guitar arrangements, Henry records Wainwright with his full band. He gets major kudos for the concept alone, and the execution is flawless– but then, I always thought Wainwright’s older work was a bit thin in the recording department. Regardless, there’s no denying that Henry’s guidance in the song selection is masterful, and for introducing Wainwright’s gifts to a whole new generation of fans, he earns our gratitute.

04. I’m Not There Original Soundtrack
i'm not there
Henry only produced a handful of the tracks on this sprawling, multi-artist celebration of Bob Dylan tunes, but it’s essential Henry for this reason: It shows his range and versatility as a producer, because it finds him working with several different artists and bringing to each one exactly what they need. He assembles his crack studio band to pick and sing their hearts out with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he keeps things simple and sparse for Marcus Carl Franklin, keeping the focus on the impact of the voice and the words; and he adds tasteful gospel thunder to John Doe’s take on “Pressing On,” as good as any track on the record.

03. I Believe to My Soul
Joe Henry is virtually single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of soul music in the 00s, for his shrewd nurturing and enthusiastic support of such legendary talents as Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, and Allen Toussaint. Indeed: Make a list of the eight or ten best soul albums of the decade, and at least three or four of them are bound to be Henry joints. Make this one of them; assembling five of the all-time greats of soul music, Henry creates a multi-artist soul compilation that’s full of soulful, elegant arrangements; vocal performances of tremendous power and nuance; and songs that are either newly-recorded or freshly interpreted. In other words: It’s pretty much perfect.

02. Allen Toussaint
The Bright Mississippi
Henry often says that he sees his role as producer simply as that of the casting director: He brings the right people together, offers them comfort and encouragement, and stays out of their way while they do their thing. That might sound like a detached approach to take, but it’s actually an inspired one, something that’s made clear by this magical recording. Henry recruits a group of ace musicians, puts them in a room together, and presses ‘record.’ And with that, he’s produced the most thrillingly alive and joyful instrumental album of the decade. It’s like bottled lightning.

01. Solomon Burke
Don’t Give Up on Me
A masterpiece of minimalism, a triumph of simple-but-soulful recording, a soul record of astonishing power and range, a comeback album that’s as tasteful and elegant as they come… everything Henry excels at seems to be present here, on this Grammy-winning masterpiece that sparked a whole new interest in soul music in the early part of the decade. The setup is just about as simple as it gets– Henry surrounds the veteran singer with just a rhythm section and Burke’s own church organist– but the results are varied and completely wonderful: Henry asked for songs from some of his famous friends and got terrific, brand new compositions from the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Brian Wilson. It’s material worthy of the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul, and Burke delivers on each song. Henry’s production keeps the focus where it sould be, and the result is so thoroughly a showcase for Burke, it isn’t until a few listens go by that you realize just how masterful Henry’s work really is.


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