Joe Henry: The Producer (Revised List)
A couple years ago, I put together a list of my ten favorite Joe Henry productions– excluding his own, proper outings as a recording artist under his own name– and did not, to be totally honest, expect to return to it so soon for an update. The thing is, Henry– my favorite record producer, something that’s never been much of a secret– is doing some of his very best work these days, so I feel like the time is right to present a revised version of the original list, with two new entries located awfully close to the top. Let me also send my apologies to Aimee Mann and Susan Tedeschi, whose very fine albums had to be cut in order to keep the list to a nice, manageable ten.
10. 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.
09. 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.
08. 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.
07. 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.
06. I’m Not There Original Soundtrack
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.
05. 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.
04. 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.
03. Aaron Neville
I Know I’ve Been Changed
Henry has a reputation for doing fine, prime work with legacy artists, but this collaboration with Aaron Neville– returning the storied singer to both his gospel and his New Orleans roots– is something particularly special. It’s no big surprise that Henry brings a similar touch to spiritual songs as he does to folk and jazz and blues, nor that he simultaneously treats these gospel standards as folk songs– part of a shared history– and embraces them for what they are as sacred songs, historic relics of church music that still live and breathe with mystery and an austere sense of Truth. His masterstroke here is casting Allen Toussaint as the anchor of the band, which means that there’s a simmering, even sensual energy that connects the songs from the heart to the feet and grounding them in a geographic place– the Crescent City. The record stands out as something rather unique in Henry’s catalog, and yet it feels at the same time like a quintessential Henry production, a perfect marriage of Don’t Give Up on Me minimalism, Between Daylight and Dark blues, and Bright Mississippi joy.
02. 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.
01. Over the Rhine
The Long Surrender
Immediately the new gold standard for both concerned parties, Henry’s seemingly magical sessions with the Over the Rhine crew finds him pulling out all the stops: Not only does he pull a crack band together but he enlists a heavenly cameo from Lucinda Williams and even collaborates in the songwriting on two cuts. But what makes this a masterwork is how it perfectly showcases Henry’s gifts as a sympathetic co-conspirator, as the album is nothing if not true to the spirit of Over the Rhine, whose twenty-year career as recording artists is both summarized and pushed forward here, Henry serving as an encouraging and a nourishing presence to them but also pushing them to confront new possibilities, to revel in sonic sensualism like never before, to pull together an album that’s quirky and open-ended, embracing mystery even as it hangs together as a statement of glorious symbiosis between band and producer.