Joe Henry: The Producer (2012 Edition)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have more than my fair share of obsessions and peculiar hang-ups—New Orleans music, black gospel music, Elvis Costello, anything involving ?uestlove—but Joe Henry surely sits at the top of the list. A few years ago, I created a list that counted down what I consider to be his finest production jobs, and never intended it to become an ongoing project. Due partly to my own obsessiveness and partly to the fact that Joe keeps doing better and better work, I’m compelled to update the list once more, making room for some of the fine work he’s done in the past year or so.

As usual, I’ll omit Henry’s own fine solo albums from the list, only to keep them from completely shutting out everything else.

01. The Bright Mississippi
Allen Toussaint (2009)
I’ve heard it said, regarding the seminal Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin American Recordings, that all Rubin had to do was put an acoustic guitar in Cash’s hands and step out of the room, and that he ended up looking like a genius in the process. In much the same way, it seems like Joe Henry gathered some of his favorite musicians into his basement and bid them go to town on some of the most classic songs of New Orleans, and the resulting record is incomparable. The Bright Mississippi is, paradoxically, as “hands off” as anything JH has produced, but it might also be the most distinctively him. All this Naw’lins racket amounts to the sound of pure joy and spontaneity. Not many records can evoke that, and the ones that do seem to come, most often, out of Joe’s basement.

02. The Long Surrender
Over the Rhine (2011)

I suspect that, had Joe Henry been living in Ohio at just the right time in the 1980’s, he would be a full-fledged member of Over the Rhine. As it is, he is merely a perfect collaborator, the catalyst for the seasoned band’s best-ever work. All of Joe’s instincts as a songwriter and a record-maker shape this masterful album, which is never in any danger of becoming anything other than pure Over the Rhine.

03. Don’t Give Up on Me
Solomon Burke (2002)

This is the one that started it all, and I suspect the one that opened the doors to most, if not all of the other collaborations listed here. It seemed revolutionary then and now: Forget the gloss, the fireworks, and the celebrity cameos. Keep the band small and soulful. Gather the very best original material possible. Focus on Song and Voice. That’s as close to a formula as you can get, I think, for a comeback record, a soul record, or really for any record that’s worth much of anything.

04. I Know I’ve Been Changed
Aaron Neville (2010)

Sometimes I read articles or hear interviews with Joe Henry, and when they list his production credits, this album never seems to get mentioned. I’m not sure why. Like The Bright Mississippi, this is strikingly emblematic of Henry’s production values. It’s got a crack band surrounding a terrific singer doing timeless material, and JH mostly just seems to let ‘em roll. Why would he do anything else? They really cook. Bottom line: The album’s hot.

05. Passenger
Lisa Hannigan (2011)

I don’t think of Joe Henry as a producer who has his own “sound,” necessarily, but there are some sonic giveaways, and most of them have to do with the musicians he regularly employs. You can frequently tell it’s a JH joint by, for instance, the shake and rattle of Jay Bellerose’s percussion. He recorded this particular album sans his regular ensemble players and outside of his Basement Studio, and it stands as a testament to his own resourcefulness. His ear and his instincts work just fine even when he’s using someone else’s studio and someone else’s band.

06. The River in Reverse
Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (2006)

This one demonstrates the subtly and steadiness of JH’s guiding hand. Though the collaboration is pitched on Toussaint’s terms, it does, indeed, feel like a true collaboration, and as far as I can tell Henry does nothing but cultivate that. He guides these musicians to make a record that’s part party and part protest; part lamentation, part indignation, part celebration. It’s totally Toussaint and completely Costello, and the sound is clean and rich without ever evoking overt nostalgia for Toussaint’s early work.

07. Recovery
Loudon Wainwright III (2008)

In terms of sheer quality, I could just as easily select Strange Weirdos. What makes this one special is the perspective Joe brings to this project. The idea of re-recording vintage material in a full-band context could have become little more than a glorified greatest-hits album. Instead, through the ace song selection and instinctive performances, this becomes a remarkable achievement and a spellbinding recording in its own right, one that actually builds upon the legacy of these great songs rather than simply presenting them in new arrangements.

08. I Believe to My Soul
Various Artists (2003)

Joe Henry has done more than just about anyone else to bring sturdy, old-fashioned soul music back into contemporary favor, and this fine recording is exemplary of his passion for the stuff. It’s traditional but never studious, and it also introduced the sort of Motown concept—with Toussaint, in particular, serving as a featured performer as well as a member of the house band—that has become a staple of pretty much all of the Garfield House recordings.

09. I’m Not There
Various Artists (2007)

It’s a little odd, I guess, to single out a fairly sprawling collection for which Joe Henry only produced a handful of tracks. The JH tracks that are here, though, are stunning. This is still the best place to hear Joe working with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, I think, the fine A Stranger Here aside. There is also a wonderful Richie Havens song, but the best song on the entire collection is the barn-burning gospel fervor of John Doe’s “Pressing On” performance.

10. Let Them Talk
Hugh Laurie (2011)

This record is simply much better than one might have expected, and most of that credit goes to Hugh Laurie, who does the heavy lifting all on his own. I give Henry credit, though, for making sure Laurie has everything he needs to make a real album and not a vanity project—including a great studio band, tremendous songs, Toussaint’s horn arrangements, and Sir Tom Jones as a duet partner.

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One response to “Joe Henry: The Producer (2012 Edition)”

  1. Michael Knepher says :

    Nice roundup. I’m still trying to get a handle on the Hugh Laurie album. I keep hearing his Fry and Laurie material and it’s hard to take him straight. But what I really want to know when Joe and Sir Tom are going to work on a full-length project together.

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