Joe Henry – Reverie (Anti-)

Joe Henry has set up his own little cottage industry, transforming his heritage house in Southern California as a recording studio and assembling session players such as drummer Jay Bellerose and bass player David Piltch as his house band.

As a result he has been responsible for some of the finest albums to be released over the past few years…producing titles for Allen Toussaint, Mose Allison and Loudon Wainwright and his own 2009 release, Blood For The Stars.

On the surface, Reverie would seem to follow right along with that template. Bellerose and Piltch are on hand, along with piano player Keefus Ciancia, while Henry handles the acoustic guitar duties himself. Marc Ribot stops by to play on three tracks and keyboard player Patrick Warren is on two.

The album was recorded live in the studio over the course of five days using all acoustic instruments. So far, so good. The sound is live and organic and the playing tasteful and adventurous.

But, there are problems.

First…there is “ambient noise” inserted between each of the tracks. This supposedly is the result of a window being left open in the studio to give the recordings more “atmosphere”. I have my doubts. These sounds, including dogs backing and traffic rolling by, sound to me to be put in after the fact. As such, they come off as a pretentious effort to give the tracks a feel that should be achieved through the playing and recording technique. These outside sounds seem to conveniently get louder between tracks and disappear during the songs.

This little exercise would be excusable if Joe Henry’s lyrics and singing weren’t also so full of themselves.

Henry’s vocal style has evolved over the years to the point where he sounds like a stereotypical beat poet riffing over the music….imagine a less gruff Tom Waits. But this delivery makes every lyric sound and feel the same. A little of this style goes a long way, and Henry is overdoing it.

Henry is also a very accomplished writer, poet and lyricist, but in this case, his lyrics crumble under their own weight. Initially, they sound impressive, even beautiful. But under a bit more scrutiny, they rarely add up to anything meaningful. In other words, they are just too damn obscure. Take this set of lyrics from After The War:

A dog-eared mind sniffed my heart

Like a pocket full of German marks

Long after the war was through

Stood me on a rusted rail

Turned my face and kicked my tail.

Henry certainly has a flair for wordplay, but can anyone tell me what he’s talking about?

I understand that a certain amount of indirectness is acceptable, even admired, in pop songwriting, but the result here is that the words just wash over the listener, without leaving any emotional trace. It’s an empty listening experience. Unfortunately, this is true for just about every one of the 14 songs on Reverie. Getting through the entire album without dosing off is difficult.

I’ve been a fan of Henry’s work over the years and enjoyed Blood For The Stars immensely. But Reverie sounds like the work of an artist who needs a collaborator, and editor, someone to help him shape his songs and give them more emotional impact. Otherwise we’re left with just pretty sounds and an impressive jumble of words.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to After The War from Reverie: