Joe Henry is Madonna's brother-in-law, but knowing that probably won't give you any clues about his music, his ideas or his motives. It seems silly not to mention it, though.
Henry's been releasing albums for about 10 years, slowly moving from
alt.country to a less precise, skewed pop form. His latest, Fuse, follows the critical success of Trampoline and continues his slide away from folk and country arrangements into the everything-goes style that's worked for a mess of other singer/songwriters (a label Henry claims to dislike), including Sam Phillips and Chocolate Genius. The songs on Fuse don't fit easily into any one genre, unless you're talking about "Adult Alternative" as something more than just a radio format strategy. It's worked for Phillips and Jill Sobule, and for the most part it works for Henry. It's a testament to his savvy songwriting, ambling yet assertive melodies and evocative lyrics that the drum loops and sometimes spare instrumentation that are scattered over the disc never really call attention to themselves.
Henry doesn't, however, appear to have flawless taste, something that Phillips has going for her (especially on her Martinis and
Bikinis album). The strength in Henry's songs can get sapped by a poor choice of instrumentation, like the chimey keyboards and muted trumpet on "Want Too Much" (which would otherwise be the album's stand-out) or the cringe-inducing, lite-jazz guitar on the instrumental "Curt Flood." It's usually the flourishes, as opposed to the backbone of the arrangements, that mar a track, and you almost wish that the "Extended CD" options that come when you load the disc into your computer would allow you to remix the tracks yourself. (Instead you get a hilarious interview with "Joe Henry" as played by Billy Bob Thornton, along with two live videos from Henry's appearance on the PBS series "Sessions at West 54th.")
Of course, any singer/songwriter's voice is a crucial asset, and
Henry's is dead-on: distinctive, expressive and just a little
mysterious, as if there's one (and only one) thing he's not telling
you. He's smart not to stretch it all that far; though he may have
plenty of reach (indeed, his harmonies on "Like She Was A Hammer" prove it), he's found the range that allows him the most freedom of
movement without losing his vocal identity.
Henry's got a lot of big-wigs gunning for his success on this outing. Renowned producers T-Bone Burnett and Americana-atmospherics man Daniel Lanois both contribute time here, in addition to members of the Wallflowers (including Jakob Dylan, who sings back-ups on "Skin and Teeth") and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Given an opening slot on a major tour, Henry could definitely break out this year; he's got all the smoky appeal and mellow assertiveness of his adult-alternative brethren, and what a minority may construe as lapses in taste, a majority might consider just the right touches.
Still, coming away from Fuse, you can't help thinking that if
he'd toughened it up a bit, cut down on the restraint and made a little noise now and again, Joe Henry might be great instead of pretty good.