Joe Henry’s latest is an overwhelming record, both his most enigmatic and his most accomplished. I first caught up to Henry ten years ago mining alt-country territory as an opening act for Uncle Tupelo. In recent years, he’s become his own musical animal, encompassing jazz and traditional song structures in his work but subverting them and experimenting like a sonic mad scientist. His unique vision has made him much in demand as both a songwriter and producer. Henry’s sister-in-law Madonna recently recorded his song “Stop” (re-titled “Don’t Tell Me”). And last year, he produced soul man Solomon Burke’s Grammy-winning comeback Don’t Give Up On Me, which included the Henry original “Flesh and Blood,” also featured on Tiny Voices.
On his previous disc, 2001’s Scar, Henry got Ornette Coleman to contribute a free-jazz sax solo on one cut. Here, clarinetist Don Byron and trumpeter Ron Miles get the nod. A little muted guitar riff, some jazzy horns, distorted percussion and Henry’s raspy but cool vocals bring us into this world on the opening “This Afternoon.” “On the afternoon that the revolution began,” he sings, “I was in a hotel pool with another kid and an Australian businessman.” “Animal Skin” features one of Henry’s most impressive vocal performances and is one of several songs tinged with what sounds like hammer dulcimer. As I listen to this song in my messy apartment, it doesn’t seem worthy of this sophisticated music.
From the skronking, honking clarinet on “Dirty Magazine” to the dreamy, classic romantic balladry of “Loves You Madly,” Tiny Voices keeps you off-balance with its odd distortions, warbling instrumentation and sound effects. “Flag” oozes cool as Henry sings, “I loved you long before I knew / Love is something one decides to do.” The set-concluding “Your Side of My World” manages to break the spell of the record, bringing us back out of the fog down to terra firma and opening up Henry’s sound with a chorus of backup singers.
Sort of a less eccentric, less dark Tom Waits character, Henry is making some of the most wonderfully earthy, inventive music around these days. Occasionally, it seems like it’s all too much and a simpler approach might give these songs more identity, separation and atmosphere. But you get the feeling there is some kind of method to Henry’s madness here. The music is all of a piece, the songs and beats morphing into each other. And even when you can’t make head nor tail of the fractured fictions and colorful characters of his lyrics, they take on a life of their own in the context of these soundscapes. Henry’s intimate, cinematic, occasionally claustrophobic vision is in full bloom on Tiny Voices. It’s a challenging record to get a handle on, but well worth the effort.