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Joe Henry

Blood from Stars

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: ANTI- Records

Genre mixing is a tricky proposition in contemporary music. If executed correctly, the result can be a work of unparalleled brilliance; however, it’s far more common for listeners to be assaulted with poorly constructed walls of incoherent disarray. On his 11th full length LP, Blood from Stars, veteran folk, jazz, blues and alt-country enthusiast Joe Henry re-establishes himself as a master of blending genres and as a profound songwriter – not to mention as a compelling bluesman and gifted guitarist — whose complex musical arrangements embrace a variety of extremes.

Blood from Stars, Henry’s third album on the star-studded ANTI- label, proves that lyrically and stylistically, Henry should no longer be overshadowed by ANTI-‘s resident giants Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Blood from Stars may not be the album that finally propels Henry from cult hero to larger-than-life icon, but this dynamic album proves that Henry is capable, with every new release, of shifting directions in ways that are entirely different from his already-diverse back catalog.

Drawing heavily on his recent experiences producing Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s A Stranger Here, Henry’s newest and perhaps most ambitious album is filled with jazz and blues influences. Several tracks begin with a traditional blues format before morphing into unorthodox jazz-folk hybrids, while Henry’s longstanding rhythm section (percussionist Jay Bellerose, bassist David Piltch and keyboardist Patrick Warren) reinforces the album’s bluesy temperament. Like any Henry record, familiarity is dwarfed by change, with Keefus Ciancia on keyboards and piano and Marc Ribot on guitars and coronet, the latter instrument serving as the driving force behind the tone-setting “The Man I Keep Hid.” Acclaimed jazz pianist Jason Moran delivers an enchanting prelude, setting an introspective mood, while Marc Anthony Thompson’s supporting vocals add a much welcomed shot of brute force to the rollicking “Death to the Storm.” Henry’s son, Levon, plays a soprano sax that lends an air of melodic reverie to several tracks, especially the instrumental “Over Her Shoulder” and the transcendent “Stars.”

What’s perhaps most notable about Blood from Stars is Henry’s ability to manage this dizzying array of contributors and maintain a cohesive sound from prelude to coda. Though several songs, particularly “Progress of Love,” build slowly and nearly reach a feverish pace, Henry demonstrates remarkable restraint as a producer by preventing the songs from deviating into unhinged musical chaos. The instrumental tracks are nicely placed, while the occasional dose of incoherent murmuring – coupled with those airy saxophones that appear and disappear like fleeting ghosts – gives the album a trancelike feel. Even the occasional crawler is welcome, as the few songs that are stripped relatively bare of such arrangements exploit Henry’s rich yet gritty vocals.

Henry’s choice of words, like his music, challenges traditional classification. Thematically, Blood from Stars is impossible to pigeonhole, as Henry’s sentiments are often obscured in shades of poetic gray. Despite his reputation as a narrative songwriter, Henry’s lyrics are far from linear, as fragmented images of ghostly nightscapes, tempestuous clouds, disillusioned lovers and bloodstained countryside all float amongst dreamy sax and string arrangements in a haze of beautiful abstraction. Henry’s rhyme schemes, ranging from esoteric (“Your sailor is my lawyer/ Your seamstress suits my king/ But you are the mouth of the river/ At the start of my every dream“) to ominous (“The birds have picked the blossoms/ I think out of spite/ The dogs have taken to the street/ Like it was theirs by right“) both set the album’s stark spirit and demonstrate Henry’s ability to express his beatnik musings in subtle, rather than overt, fashions.

Whether or not Blood from Stars appears on many end-of-year “best of” lists depends on how willing fans and critics will be to embrace an album so heavily rooted in jazz and blues, two genres traditionally lacking in commercial appeal. Like Henry’s other albums, this refined effort may fly under most music lovers’ radar and even alienate listeners who lack the patience to endure an album that plays out subtly instead of relying on raised voices and screaming guitars to make its point. Commercial success and recognition notwithstanding, Blood from Stars is an impressive achievement that becomes more revelatory with every listen.

by Marcus David

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