You can hear the Tennessee cicadas in the background of this new Carolina Chocolate Drops album, which I love. I’m not normally one to get caught up in questions of “authenticity,” understand. I’ve seen this particular group play, and I believe in my heart that they’re the real deal; here, though, the recording itself offers glorious assent to the truth of the Chocolate Drops as real country people making real country music, living and breathing and swinging here with wild, rugged joy. The cicadas harmonizing along with them makes it all too easy to sink into the belief that you’re sitting on some mountain porch, hearing this music created in real time.
Praises are due, of course, to producer Buddy Miller, picking up where Joe Henry left off. Joe’s work laid the necessary foundation, establishing this band’s penchant for country-blues, rustic folk, and Appalachian jigs. The music on Genuine Negro Jig was tough, drawing the past into the future. The new album likely wouldn’t have been possible without it; that said, Leaving Eden is a more confident, more joyful, and more intimate recording. It’s more ambitious, but less polishes. I simply think there’s more feeling here, and the songs seem to flow quite naturally out of the group’s passion for making music together.
Joe Henry led the band to a cover of a contemporary R&B song, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” It wasn’t a novelty, but evidence of how much this music kicks, even when working to revamp modern material. Leaving Eden offers sort of the mirror image– a Chocolate Drops original, “Country Girl,” that almost sounds like it could fit on a contemporary R&B album. It’s a propulsive tune and an obvious single, its weight carried by vocal percussion and by Rhiannon Giddens’ swaggering delivery of the lyric, a celebration of rural Southern culture that takes the joys with the hardships and embraces the full scope of simple living and field labor.
It’s one of three songs that stand out as obvious anchors on a record that’s otherwise too fidgety, too primitive to stay in the same place for long. The title song is another showstopper, even if it’s also the most mannered thing here; it’s got a lovely cello arrangement, but the lyric, again delivered by Giddens, is what makes it stick. The song is about a life of hardship and strife, one that we all know must end in a sad goodbye– yet for all of life’s struggles, that goodbye is a bitter one, and the song embodies that tension to aching effect. The other big Giddens highlight is the closer, a lullaby called “Pretty Bird.” Performed basically a capella, the song makes me just the tiniest bit afraid that this group could evolve into just a platform for Giddens’ voice– and lovely though that is, I love this band for the glorious cling and clatter of banjo, mandolin, pipes and whistles, beatboxing, bones, fiddles, and kazoos that kick up so much dust on the rest of this record.
And yeah, as fine and as necessary as those album anchors are, I like the record best when it’s woolier, dirtier. The opening one-two punch is actually a little disarming in how ragged the sound is; the traditional “Riro’s House” is a hoedown led by fiddle, banjo, and snare drum, the vocal so muddy you could almost believe the recording is as old as the song itself. The same goes for “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” a creeping instrumental where those cicadas almost overpower the musicians.
And there are plenty of other highlights. “Read ‘Em John” is killer, howling in its gospel fervor and call-and-response urgency. That one’s sung by Dom Flemons, who also charms on the rustic nonsense “Boodle-de-Bum-Bum,” but Giddens is the singer on the funny, feisty brawler “West End Blues” and the jaunty declaration of female independence “No Man’s Mama.” I’m not even sure what to say about the ragged tear through “Run Mountain,” except that it is, indeed, Appalachian folk music at its most primal, and it’s wonderful.
Have I really been blogging about records for this long without doing a proper Desert Island post? It is, of course, the oldest question in all of music fandom, this question of which stack of vinyl you’d most like to have handy should you ever find yourself marooned (and, inexplicably, with a working player and some kind of power supply). It should be noted, though, that asking someone for their ten desert island picks is not the same as simply asking them for their ten favorite records, their ten sentimental selections, or even the ten records they reach for with the greatest frequency.
Why, were any of those the question at hand, I reckon my answers would include a handful of Dylans, a smattering of Joe Henrys, and perhaps a wildcard pick from my jazz shelf. But that wouldn’t be a very fun list, to write or to read or to have on hand while stuck on the island. A desert island list, the way I understand it, should be a list of ten albums that best encapsulates everything the listmaker loves and listens for—to the extent that any ten records could ever do such a thing. A good desert island lists spans genre and mood, and doesn’t repeat the same artist twice. Naturally, beloved artists will be amiss—we’re talking about just ten records, after all—and favorite records will be edged out. If I can’t have both Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, then this is obviously not even close to a comprehensive catalog of the records I love. (And picking the Dylan-in-mono box set would likely be a cheat too extreme, I fear.)
These albums on my list, then, offer kind of a template—in general, the kinds of records I love, and the kinds of records I might try to make, were I myself a record-maker. The only theme they share, I guess, is that they are all filled with great performances of great songs, which is the best way to sum up what I think makes any record worthwhile.
The rules well defined, I must start my list where you all know I must start it—with a Joe Henry album, and Tiny Voices (2003) in particular. The album is not yet ten years old, but it’s been the album I call my favorite for almost its entire existence—and what better selection could one make for a desert island then this music, which seems to recreate itself every time it’s played. Tiny Voices is pure electric mayhem worthy of late-60’s Dylan, howling nightclub crooning worthy of Waits, a jazz-rock bastard Miles might have spawned, and its songs abide and embody mystery better than any I know. This is a dangerous singer/songwriter album, and not for the faint of heart; but, it brings joy to my heart, and documents the kind of spontaneity that I’ve come to prefer in the records I hear.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that any list that begins with Joe Henry must surely move on to Dylan—ah, but which Dylan will it be? I have said in the past that “Love & Theft” is my favorite of Bob’s, for the way it crosses the paths of everywhere else he’s traveled, and it probably is the one I play the most. This is a desert island list, however, and I want to make sure I have a good folk album on hand. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) actually makes for a good companion to L&T, as both of them are unimpeachable and really rather mind-blowing feats of songwriting. I think, in fact, that Dylan’s second album is still perhaps an album he’s never topped; with a run of songs that beings with the timeless protest-spiritual “Blowin’ in the Wind,” moves into the ravishing romance of “Girl from the North Country,” bristles with “Masters of War” and touches on surrealism and humor and sadness and spite along the way, an argument could be made that it’s an album nobody has ever topped.
A good folk album calls for a good rock album, of course, and I know of none more exhilarating or affecting than Rod Stewart’s classic Every Picture Tells a Story (1971). Rod, when he was good, was better than anybody else; he only gave us about five good years, but this album tops the stupendous Never a Dull Moment and even the sublime Faces box set to stand as his crowning glory. This is back before the disco and the American Songbook and the karaoke, mind you, back when Rod was the unrivaled interpreter of Dylan, back when he bent soul and R&B songs into blistering rock and roll, back when he burned the house down with an Elvis tune and eased into “Amazing Grace” like it was the most natural thing in the world, which, for him, it probably was. This is a wild and wooly celebration of Song itself, and Rod’s refusal to separate the spirit of folk music from the spirit of rock and roll makes it timeless and endlessly appealing, at least to me. I just don’t think rock albums get any better.
Speaking of albums that are singularly affecting: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968) is one that always changes the weather, and moves completely in its own plane; only Van’s own Veedon Fleece even comes close, I think, but even it doesn’t quite kindle the same purity of poetry, the same warmth and spontaneity. This is music borne of spirit and instinct, Van proving himself—even at such a young age!—as soul singer and bandleader without peer. Evidently, the only direction he gave the musicians was to follow his lead, and lead them he did, scatting straight into the mystic. Astral Weeks is a spiritual album, if you’ll pardon the cliché, and it sets the standard for the kind of poetry and storytelling that I love: Where navel-gazing and introspection increasingly bore me as a listener, this album grasps for both mystery and Truth in its pursuit of the beloved, and of a time and place when we’ll never grow so old again.
My fifth album is a bit of a cheat, I confess, though not much of one; picking a box set instead of a proper album may seem dubious at first, but The Birth of Soul (box set released 1991, music recorded 1951-1959) is a collection that really plays like an album, in the sense that it tells a complete story. (Besides, where else might one find all these timeless Ray Charles singles?) It’s an origins story, the eureka moment caught on tape—the story of Ray Charles inventing what we call soul. At the beginning of the set he sits at the piano, with all the separate threads of smooth R&B, jazz improvisation, gospel hollering and primitive rock and roll gathered in his hands. It doesn’t take but two or three songs before he’s woven them into something that both defines and transcends genre. You hear this music being born, which is what makes this set so alluring, but I’m picking it here just because everything in the set is so irresistible, whether it’s church-time moaning, sweet lover’s rock, midnight blues, or whatever box you care to check for “What’d I Say.”
Of course, I’m going to need something from the world of jazz sooner or later. The jazz LP I reach for most regularly is one by Charles Mingus, specifically his Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). Kind of a souped-up “greatest hits” album, this record finds Mingus revisiting some of the most beloved and still-kicking songs from earlier in his career, floating in an Ellington cover and one new composition for good measure. The thing is, though, this is Mingus as his scrappy best, as he leads an 11-piece band through performances that are just scorching hot, rawer and more raucous even than the fiery originals. There were always many sides to Mingus, of course—the Mingus who loved the hoop and holler of primitive gospel and blues, and the Mingus who preferred the refinement of ballet and orchestral song-suites—but this set brings them together, with music where the sophistication is evident even as the songs kick and stomp with real fury. It’s an incredibly lively and soulful piece of work, which is really all I ask of music, and of Mingus.
But if that’s my rowdy jazz album, my desert island list is also going to need a midnight blues record—something for the quiet hours. Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967) fits the bill, though here again I find myself admitting that this is the most raucous and rambunctious album the artist ever made. Are you sensing a pattern? Nina has long been a favorite singer of mine, and like Brother Ray she is someone whose work isn’t easily confined by the conventions of genre. Sings the Blues is an album comprised of intimate, small-band performances, and the close quarters of the musicians leads to an album that just boils over with after-hours desperation and roiling roadhouse blues; I don’t think there’s ever been a song that exudes sexual longing quite like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” any more than I think there’s ever been a song that poses a question and demands an answer with the same force and swagger as “Do I Move You?” And those aren’t even the highlights, necessarily. This is Nina’s finest hour as a singer and a bandleader, and if I do think I’d rather miss some of her more political numbers while marooned on the island, this album at least offers “Backlash Blues” to tide me over—and really, who needs politics on a desert island anyway?
I need to cheat once again for my next pick, opting for one more box set, namely the Def Jam Music Group, Inc.: 10th Year Anniversary (box set released 1995, music recorded 1985-1994) to scratch the hip-hop itch. Here again, though, this is a box set that unfolds like an album, and tells a story—the story of a culture and a movement, of the world of possibility that still exists in rap and of the seeds of trouble and excess that were there from the beginning. There were other rap labels besides Def Jam, of course, but this perfectly-curated compilation allows us to behold the full spectrum of what this music is, with the incendiary polemics and Bomb Squad noise of Public Enemy crashing into the heavy-metal frat-boy anthems of Beastie Boys, all while LL Cool J creates the template for hip-hop swagger, Slick Rick blazes trails in street-corner storytelling, and the rest of the label’s roster sticks mostly to crafting killer beats and rhymes. All told, this box set just can’t be beat, as far as sheer volume of great American music goes.
Even a mention of the Beasties makes me realize that I need a killer party record here—and no rock and roll record gives me the same sweet rush as that lone studio album from Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980). The honor of all-time best pure rock and roll band would have to go to either these guys or The Faces—the latter group represented above via my Rod Stewart pick—and the fact that Rockpile could take that honor based on, really, a single album (and a live one, just unearthed and released last year) is a testament to this album’s power. Indeed, for me, Seconds of Pleasure is formative—an album that shows just how irresistible the sound of a totally unpretentious, good-times rock outfit could be. It’s a rush of big sing-along hooks, humor, and rock the way they did it in the 50’s, which all sounds pretty perfect to my ears. Plus, it’s full of fine moments from the great Nick Lowe (especially the dynamite single “Teacher Teacher,” the pure sleaze of “Pet You and Hold You,” the pint-hoisting pub anthem “Play That Fast Thing One More Time,” and the brilliantly hilarious faux-memoir “When I Write the Book”) and his partner in crime Dave Edmunds (whose barnstorming, piledriving cover of “If Suger Was as Sweet As You” is a highlight). But the best song might be the one Nick gave to Billy Bremner—a winsomely earnest rendition of his classic song “Heart,” better than the version Nick cut himself.
I’m down to a final selection here, which is, of course, when things get a bit hairy. I’d be a fool to omit Elvis Costello, and Allen Toussaint, and Over the Rhine, and Tom Waits—but I think I’d be a bigger fool still to leave out the great Miles Davis. (And as with Dylan and Henry, longtime readers surely knew from the start that a Miles pick was inevitable.) My favorite Miles has long been A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), a record that may be more shrouded in myth than any other I can think of—including the still-murky details of the recording sessions, the tales of heroic ad hoc soloing from Miles and Herbie Hancock (who just happened to be in the studio that day), the masterful production work that splices the Jack Johnson material with some familiar sounds from In a Silent Way—but what makes it a favorite, and a stone classic, is that it just kicks. This is Miles at his most badass, even more so than On the Corner; and his band (more lethal than the Rolling Stones, Miles said) is muscular enough to hold up the trumpeter’s own astonishing, athletic solos—maybe the best he ever did. So forget what I may have said about some of the other records on this list: Jack Johnson is the greatest rock album of all time.
All this begs one final question, of course; what are the ten records you’d most like to have on standby, should you ever find yourself stranded?
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.
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.
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.
Christianity Today‘s music reviewing staff– of which I am a member– voted on the best records of 2011, and while the CT list is hardly a carbon copy of my own, you will notice plenty of overlap. Of course I could quibble with it, as I could any list that isn’t my own, but really, I am simply delighted to see a list in which Joe Henry, Over the Rhine, Paul Simon, and Gillian Welch are rubbing elbows and bumping shoulders.
#1 on the CT list is Josh Garrels, whose album did not make my own list, though I did quite like it. I stick by my original comments about that album, I think– that it is impressively ambitious and very well-executed, as well as frequently moving; also, a bit too long and maybe a little too serious. But for CT, it’s a fine choice, no question.
I’ve been noticing a lot of complaints from my fellow critics and bloggers, who seem to think year-end list-making is something of a chore. I don’t really blame them, but also don’t really agree. I love doing this, because I love celebrating the albums that have offered me truth and beauty, revelation and sheer enjoyment, over the past dozen months or so.
And what a year this one has been. The short version of the story: Joe Henry wins my hypothetical awards for Songwriter and Producer of the Year, as well as 2011 MVP. My favorite performance by a band in 2011 would be either Over the Rhine or The Roots, and, not too coincidentally, my favorite performance by a singer this year was from Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist, while my favorite bit of MC-ing was from The Roots’ own Black Thought. I’ll also give The Roots the year’s best album cover.
Favorite concert I saw in 2011? Take your pick between Trombone Shorty, Joe Henry, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, and Over the Rhine.
Favorite old music released in 2011? It’s gotta be either the This May Be My Last Time Singing gospel music box set, or else the superb single-disc Sinatra The Best of the Best.
The year’s biggest surprise? Maybe it was Hugh Laurie’s blues album turning out to be so good. Maybe it was Ry Cooder ditching his usual guitar heroics and making one of his best-ever albums in the process. But it was probably the fact that three of my all-time favorite musical entities have made, after 20+ years in the game, albums that probably stand as their career-best.
And that brings us to my favorite albums of the year. I’m going to run down my top fifteen, more or less in the right order, but with the caveat that the top three albums are, again, exemplary works from peerless musicians—so who really cares which one is two and which one is three?
I’ll also list just a handful of very honorable mentions before getting to the list proper. Your 2011 listening experience is not complete if you haven’t heard Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’; The Black Keys’ El Camino; Meshell Ndegeocello’s Weather; DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers; or The Decemberists’ The King is Dead.
15. Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
… in which the man who taught Keith Richards to play the blues takes us on a tour of ancient musics and modern maladies, turning in the funniest, angriest, most ferocious protest album I’ve heard in a good while. Plus: The title is an old softshoe joke from the Great Depression era. Kids these days have a lot to learn—we all do, I reckon—and Ry Cooder is just the man to teach us.
14. Let Them Talk
Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “St. James Infirmary” is a ragged and darkly comical delight—one of the greatest recordings of all time, I’d say. Hugh Laurie does it here as an epic, grave and grandiose, and the highest compliment I can pay him is to say that I have no interest in comparing his version with Louis’. I’m glad they both exist, and overjoyed that the rest of Let Them Talk is similarly passionate and professional, a labor of love from a moonlighter who takes the blues as seriously as his day job.
13. The Old Magic
This is a master class in songwriting, especially on the ballads: “Stoplight Roses,” “I Read a Lot,” and “House for Sale” prove that nobody’s better than Lowe at saying a whole lot with very little, and at speaking volumes with what’s left altogether unsaid. Meanwhile, “Restless Feeling” was described in the press release as a roller rink anthem, and it’s amazing to me how apt—and how surprisingly pleasant—that description turns out to be.
12. The Road from Memphis
Booker T. Jones and the Roots
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for “legacy” artists—Jones is 67, and a legend by any standard—doing fine, fresh work; for soul music and for small-ensemble spontaneity; and for the crisp sound of ?uestlove’s snare and hi-hat. For these reasons and more, the Booker/Roots collaboration is a finer-popping good time, and a vibrant example of a music that never goes out of style or out of season.
11. Let England Shake
I can’t deny that this album might mean more to me if I were a Brit—but I also can’t deny that Harvey’s assessment of toxic nationalism and a violent human condition are anything but universal. My favorite thing about this album isn’t the precision and compassion that inform her indignation, but rather the way she makes this sound like a collection of spooky old folk songs, as if to say that this story is nothing new.
10. So Beautiful or So What
God the Father and God the Son are walking the earth, and one says to the other that he thinks it’s time to leave. Ah, but then what will these people be left with, the other responds. Love and hard times, the answer goes. For this scene and many others, Simon’s album remains one of my favorite examples of bold and beautiful songwriting from the past year—or the past several.
There are lots of references to air travel on this one, so of course I’ve found that it’s a perfect soundtrack for plane rides. Surprisingly, it is also good for dancing, at least on the upbeat songs. Given how many singer/songwriter albums are either too leaden or too airy, this is a significant accomplishment, but it’s hardly the only thing I love about Hannigan’s album. This is a savory concoction of passion and craft, a thoroughly modern album that feels like a timeless classic.
08. For True
I really think he’s the hardest working man in showbiz today—certainly, the most righteous flag-bearer for modern New Orleans swagger. Shorty’s albums are very different from the epic jam sessions that are his Orleans Avenue gigs, but no less impressive; here he keeps things short and sweet and song-oriented, showing that he’s not just a party animal and horn boss but also an ace soul singer and a non-stop good idea machine.
07. Bad as Me
How apt: There’s been a Tom Waits album for the saloon, a Tom Waits album for the back porch, a Tom Waits album for the graveyard… and whatever Real Gone is, of course. Now we have a Tom Waits album for the roadhouse jukebox. For anyone who thinks Waits is just an eccentric weirdo—or that American roots music has to be boring and well-mannered—Bad as Me should prove a real mind-expander.
06. What Were You Hoping For?
This one wins the award for most perfectly coy album title of the year—because nobody possibly could have expected this album from Van Hunt, nor could any listener’s response to it be anything other than pure delight. I remember when Hunt was still singing for Blue Note, corralled in with the neo-soul scene. Now he’s making freakish funk monsters that channel Prince, Sly Stone, and D’Angelo in equal measure, but ultimately prove Van Hunt to be in a league of his own.
05. 50 Words for Snow
Nobody else this year delivered such truth in advertising. The title song here is, indeed, a litany of precisely fifty words for snow. Some are matter of fact; others, whimsical and silly. All are delivered by Stephen Fry, of all people, who, along with Bush, seems to relish the chance to celebrate rhythm and poetry and simple beauty, linear meaning be damned. And that’s to say nothing of the star-crossed Elton John duet, or the dreamy 35-minute, snow-drift opening act! All told, there’s never been a record like this, but for me, its patience and slow-burn sensuality make it a delight.
04. The Harrow and the Harvest
I saw Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings play almost all of these songs, and plenty others, to a packed theater. They stood on a naked stage, armed with only acoustic instruments and songs, and kept us entranced. This is their darkest album, but also their most seductive. It’s an album about reaping and sowing—about “all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself,” Welch sings—but its pleasures are so many that it’s impossible not to simply give in to its sway.
03. The Long Surrender
Over the Rhine
It opens with a song about pressing on in spite of, or maybe even because of, failure; that it’s so soulful and sublime makes it, and the whole record, a glorious monument to a band that has been inviting and enabling quiet mysteries and simple beauty for two decades and counting. They’ve still got stories to tell; in fact, this is their best album, and not only because of their perfect camaraderie with producer Joe Henry. When has such an unassuming and intimate album so shaken and rattled the soul? For me, maybe never.
This was, and is, a special record for me; its allure was enough to get me on a plane and fly across the country just for the honor of hearing Joe and his Garfield House players perform it. I’ve called it his Basement Tapes and his rock and roll album, but really the scrappiness of Reverie is a bit of a canard. It is just disheveled enough to initially obscure the fact that it’s the most thoughtful, mystery-abiding and –embodying album he’s ever made.
Fate and free will meet on the corner, but that’s not the only cosmic collision on undun; there’s also an epic pileup of hip-hop past and future, with the Roots drawing from disparate sources—gospel hooks, soulful beats, a free-jazz explosion, even a string quartet—and somehow pull them into the hardest, toughest, most streetwise album of their career. But more than anything, it’s the words that enliven undun. It’s hip-hop mythology done as anti-heroism, and I confess to finding it riveting, disquieting, and profound. The Roots have made a rap masterpiece of and for the times, but its political and philosophical resonance never gets in the way of the thing just bangin’—the sound of veterans finding new inspiration and zeal in their craft.
Weather is a pretty perfect metaphor for Meshell Ndegeocello, a singer and songwriter whose muse has led her—never without a little turbulence—through volatile incarnations of funk, hip-hop, jazz, and folk; it’s also perfect for a sometimes-stormy album that surveys the human heart’s incorrigible bluster, and the tumult of intimacy and romance. But maybe the most surprising thing about it is how serene it is. This feels to me like the sound of Ndegeocello settling, and I don’t mean that in a bad way: She’s made a name for herself on the basis of her elusive, ever-changing relationship to genre, but here she escapes category altogether and simply slips into song itself.
Weather is her most pensive album, her most reflective, and her most melancholy. This, more than anything she’s made, strikes me as a singer/songwriter album, something driven home by the presence of Joe Henry in the producer’s chair. He’s an ace at guiding these small, intimate marvels of singing and song, and Weather seems based—as is his custom—on live performance. But there’s something strange in the air for Henry and his usual cast of collaborators; these songs are spit-polished with layers of dubs and studio effects, I can only assume as Ndegeocello’s behest. Her instincts were probably right: The slight affectations on these songs don’t cause them to close up or seem stifled, but rather they reveal how puzzling and open-ended these songs—all of them great—really are. I don’t know what went on in the studio, of course, but I do know that Weather is strange, soulful, and sublime.
Its best moments, I think, are the ones where the edges are most frayed. “Weather” is a jumble of messy humanity, humor and desire bundled together like a tangle of voices. It’s funky and folksy at the same time. “Crazy and Wild” is less a tangle than a dark undertow, stately piano doing nothing to contain the savage passion, the love that leads to the brink of madness. And “Oysters,” a piano-led ballad, is hushed in desperation and need, peppered with comedy and romance. It has my favorite line on the album: “I’ll shuck all the oysters and you can keep the peals/ I do my shucking and my jiving for free.”
It’s a moody piece of work overall, its tempos slow, but don’t take that to mean that it’s boring, or a downer—there’s simply too much beauty and soul, too much ravishing romance and quirky humor, for any of that to be true. And there are a couple of moments that qualify, I think, as pure pop songs. “Chance” bursts through the clouds like a ray of sun, an analog synthesizer giving way to a warm paean to the holy act of risk-taking. “Dirty World,” meanwhile, is a vintage Ndegeocello tune, riding atop a fat bassline and an almost disco-ready beat. Catchy though it may be, this one isn’t as sunny; the chorus ends with “kick and scream and watch it burn.”
But this, I think, is what makes the album such an odd marvel—it’s compelling because, in its own elliptical way, it suggests something of a worldview, one that is no less truthful because of its contradiction. Ndegeocello has filled these tunes with want and desire, forces she regards as equally alluring and destructive, potentially murderous yet profoundly connected to what it means to be human. There are moments of tenderness and naked emotion throughout the album, then—but I think it’s no coincidence that the record ends with her warning her lover not to take her kindness for weakness (a Soul Children cover), or that a song of abject obsession (“I think about you every day, and linger on your doorstep”) is followed by one about a love that makes things new (“I want to live as a beginner”).
Weather takes strange detours and, despite a certain sense of polish, maintains a certain messiness, primarily, I think, because the singer is so persistent in allowing a sense of mystery to preside—something that spills out of the songs into the production and even into her choice of cover material, in particular a soulful reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel.” It adds up to an album that’s deadly serious about love and sex, but also charmingly ragged and funny; deeply reflective and even somber, but still warm and inviting. One the surface it sounds like Meshell Ndegeocello at her most tranquil, but it quickly reveals itself to be an album of sensual pleasure and alluring depth.
A Joe Henry album, I have come to believe, is more than a little like a case in HBO’s The Wire; as Detective Freamon might remind us, “All the pieces matter.” The new one has fourteen pieces, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that any one of them is more or less important than all the others. Each seems to present the maps and legends needed to explore the surrounding territories. But a song that has been revealing itself, little by little, as a particularly well-hidden gateway to Reverie’s secrets is “Grand Street.” The song recalls, perhaps deliberately, another of Henry’s songs, “This Afternoon,” from the Tiny Voices album. Both songs are masterpieces of suspense; ominous details pile up and suggest a story that never arrives, as if Henry is suggesting that the build-up is more important than the event itself. In “Grand Street,” there is maybe even less of a narrative than in “This Afternoon.” Our narrator stands atop a stair. He scratches his leg, has a smoke, takes in the scene. There’s a butcher, and a woman with a scarf in her hair, but really, nothing much happens. The song itself is a holy act of waiting. It is a moment and nothing more.
That makes it, I reckon, a song only Joe Henry would write, perhaps even a song only Joe Henry could write. It also makes for an evocative portrait of Reverie in miniature. If the album was a movie, this song could be the trailer. “Grand Street” surveys time not as a philosophical construct or as a tool of measurement, but as a physical entity, a force that gives the song a structure and a context.
The album both is and isn’t about time. Joe Henry has as much as said that time is its central conceit—something that is not, he bids us remember, related to the fact that he turned 50 while writing these songs—but to suggest that the man sat down and whittled away at fourteen songs that muse, in abstract terms, on time as a concept would be like saying that Henry’s Civilians was engineered to be a dozen songs “about” God and politics. On that album, the twin forces of the nation and the divine shaped and propelled the action, but were not its central players. The characters in those songs did not sit and talk about God and country, and neither do the characters in these songs offer conjecture about the invisible hand of time. Time is like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, in a sense; it propels the action and sets the tone while remaining largely unseen. And when it makes a real appearance—say, on “Room at Arles,” a song for the late Vic Chesnutt—it’s fairly dramatic, though not in the way you might think.
There is another sense in which Reverie is an entirely different record than Civilians. Both Civilians and Blood from Stars were, to some degree, meditations on Mystery. Reverie doesn’t consider mystery so much as it embodies it, much as Tiny Voices did. To put it another way, I think you can listen to Civilians from the first song to the last and assume a consistent narrator, or at least a reliable authorial voice. And Blood from Stars, with its prelude and prologue, had a deliberate structure to it. Reverie is more of an abstraction, more a set of thematically-linked short stories than a Great American Novel, a set of fragments that suggest a shape you can almost see, even if you can never quite arrange the pieces in a way that makes that shape fully evident. And again I tell you: All the pieces matter. (By the way, I don’t for a moment believe Henry didn’t intend for this thing to have a funny shape and a slanted vision; he cites Picasso as an inspiration for this album, for goodness sake.)
And about that funny shape… let me return, if I may, to “Grand Street,” a song that serves as both summary and sleight of hand, a bit of misdirection that threw me off for a good several weeks of listening before the bigger picture began to enter my view. Reverie is two albums in one; as has already been said rather emphatically, this is very much the closest thing we have to a Joe Henry rock and roll album, a set of strangely bumping and thrashing basement tapes that have a greater sense of improvisation to them, a more visceral impact, than anything he’s done. “Grand Street” builds, with live-in-the-studio immediacy, into a tempestuous middle section that did not, as far as I know, cause structural damage to the basement in which it was recorded, but sounds like it could quite easily have knocked some things loose. It, along with “Sticks and Stones” and “Strung” and the lead single-ish “Odetta,” set up the album as a rowdy and rambunctious affair, which it frequently is, but it is not Joe Henry’s rock album or his Basement Tapes any more than Blood was his blues album or Scar his jazz one.
Instead: It’s a slippery and elusive and impressionistic thing with many pieces—and all the pieces matter! It is an rich assortment of riddles, scenes left slightly askew. The first half of the album is where all those basement tape whispers come out: It’s where you’ll find all the songs mentioned above, all the strange bumps and rattles of Henry’s volatile basement combo. It’s got rock, blues, country, tango, and a gangbusters Money Jungle opener where small-band chemistry conveys music with real physicality. The songs—“Grand Street” being one of them—are like little movie scenes snatched from the reels and refashioned into a new film; they don’t have the same stories or the same characters, but in an undeniable way they were clearly made to go together.
After “Strung,” a tango that tips its fedora to Tom Waits in full-on circus carny mode, the ground shifts and the record starts to take on a different kind of character; what follows are four ballads, the songs less like movie scenes than stand-alone poems, the structures clearer but no less mysterious. These songs are sparer, too, but no less physical—the small-ensemble intimacy makes them ballads you can feel on your skin.
The end of the album is the most surprising of all, at least for those of us who have been listening to Joe Henry albums for a while now. The final three songs are, for want of a better cliché, pop songs. And love songs—because how else would one end an album that frequently pokes its finger into the eye of time, but never once takes its ravages to be anything but inevitable?
My grouping of the songs according to what their forms seem to dictate betrays a loose and imperfect method of classification, if only because the third and possibly best song on the album, “After the War,” could fit quite easily into any of the three sections. As a sort of pre-war ballad—pop the way Bing Crosby did it—it makes for a vivid entry in the first half of the album’s stylistic shuffle; of course, it is also both a ballad and, arguably, a love song, even if its sentiment is one borne of regret.
“After the War” also illustrates the way Reverie tends to allow its mysteries to abide without need of classification. It is a song that surveys time, yes—calls it by name, even—but the crux of the song is really in that word after. The song isn’t about time in the abstract so much as time as a physically imposing presence, a fence between a then and a now. It’s also about the narrator’s pining for what lies on the other side of that fence. That tension is, basically, the story and substance of the song, and indeed, of the entire record; “Odetta” works in a similar way, only this time the narrator wants to be carried ahead instead of allowed to walk back.
Of the ballads section of the album (and once again I am cheating a bit; “Deathbed Version” might be too slinky and cantankerous to fit the bill), the most pivotal number might be “Tomorrow is October,” a song with a declarative sentence as its title and as the full force of its revelation: The narrator, in the verses, struggles to find his footing as the ground beneath him ever moved, but then the chorus hits with the full gravity of something inevitable. The songs in this section have better manners, and seem to come from a more refined and sophisticated stock, than the ones that came prior—“Deathbed Version” is a variation on an e.e. cummings conceit, and “Room at Arles” takes its name from a painting—but their truths may in fact be all the more savage because of it. Certainly, “Deathbed Version,” where the present moment collides with mortality, is the most sinister-sounding thing Henry has ever put on an album.
As for the finale: Who knew Joe Henry wrote songs like this? “Unspeakable” is a lover’s hymn that uses song itself as its central metaphor of love’s power when it is something active, not merely assumed; in so doing it hearkens back to “Strung,” which likens the action of love to the action of creating, and to “Room at Arles,” which measures life in terms of song. Time’s savagery is not denied, but rather it is accepted, which seems to be the overriding idea of the closing song, “The World and All I Know.” Lofty title aside, this is a very different sort of album closer for Joe Henry; it’s not an epic like “Your Side of My World,” nor does it tie the record’s themes together as neatly as “God Only Knows” or “Light No Lamp” did, but rather it serves as a sort of final thought, a last scene, a closing perspective that plays off everything that came before it and suggests the notion of surrender as a sort of antidote to the more menacing sense of inevitability in, say, “Tomorrow is October” or “Deathbed Version”—and for that matter, an answer to the narrator’s anxieties in “After the War.” And all that in a concise three minutes; I told you it was a pop song!
But it’s not a pat answer so much as a tranquil distillation of a motif that surfaces throughout the album, more violently and with greater urgency. That’s the motif of the search, an active and sometimes fumbling but no less determined quest for meaning in the here and now—intimacy in the face of death’s cruelty, love and faithfulness even when tomorrow and forever are empty promises. In “The World and All I Know,” that kind of surrender to time’s undertow suggests that impermanence need not mean meaninglessness. Its contrast is in the album opener, “Heaven’s Escape,” an expression of innate dissatisfaction and restlessness even in paradise—of a human heart that cannot be satisfied so long as time keeps marching forward. And then there is “Eyes Out for You,” where the singer searches for an unnamed lover, through eyes “each blue and black.”
What Henry has done here, it should be said, is a rather remarkable achievement; he’s taken time’s passage as a sort of unifying force that can, and does, smuggle in necessary themes of personal stock-taking without ever being a confessional album—or, God forbid, an autobiographical one. They are songs about love as a verb and time as an immovable force, and thus they are songs about living in the balance. “Sticks and Stones” might be the most obvious example—though it ends with a frozen-in-time scene not unlike “Grand Street,” its chorus is concerned with new leaves, presumably the kinds one might turn over, only here they have all run out. “Dark Tears,” meanwhile, calls for an acknowledgement of how urgent all this really is; “some take love for granted, like they’ll never be alone” goes its most emphatic verse, which comes, I should note, right before a verse about remembering the dead.
Reverie is an elliptical record, built on the frayed connections between Henry’s sketchiest songs to date—which is not in any way a bad thing. There is nothing here that takes the role of the magnificent centerpiece, as “Our Song” did on Civilians, building from hypnotic narrative into a chorus that connects the dots and lifts the curtain on the song’s implicit revelations; nor is there anything that leans in the direction of historic iconography as an easy signpost, no narration from Richard Pryor or Charlie Parker. (Those attentive to the liner notes will witness a fleeting glimpse of Henry Fonda’s likeness, however.) These songs are cut closer to the bone. They entice rather than explain. They conjure mystery and permit us to savor its presence.
What this isn’t is a willfully difficult record. This is one of the true pleasures of any Joe Henry album, and one of his greatest gifts as a record-maker: His work always welcomes us to spend time with it, then amply rewards us for doing so. Reverie wears its fraying edges with warmth, its delights palpable. A song like “Tomorrow is October” is well within Henry’s wheelhouse, and he does ballads like this one so assuredly that it’s easy to take for granted the fact that he does them expertly. “Room at Arles,” meanwhile, is noteworthy for being the first recording featuring just Joe and his guitar; though simple in execution, it’s as scruffy and disheveled as anything here. Meanwhile, “Dark Tears” is all circular rhythms, almost a drone; it’s a new color in Henry’s palette, as is “Heaven’s Escape,” a ramshackle number that harnesses the loose electricity of small-combo jazz recordings more evocatively than anything he’s recorded before. Most surprising of all is the wild abandon of the drum solo that comes in the middle of “Sticks and Stones.” Joe Henry albums never feel fussed over, but here he’s ruffling his hair more than ever, and it allows Reverie to be the unkempt, roguish charmer in the Joe Henry catalog.
It might go without saying, I suppose, that basement racket turns out to be the perfect mode of expression for this particular set of songs. Henry and his band wrestle with something wild and wooly here, and they impose some order on it without quite taming or subduing it, and they don’t create beauty from the savagery so much as point to the beauty that’s already there. Reverie is an album that teaches you how to listen to it, and that’s how I’m hearing it now: As a series of moments in time that whisper of big pictures and unspeakable revelations.