Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Seeing both the trees and the forest - Joe Henry's "Blood from Stars"

At my age, it’s probably not good for the heart to try to keep apace with something as wild and frenetic as Melt-Banana for too long and so, as tempting as that would have been, I decided to slow things down a notch or fifty today and immerse myself in a wonderful jazzish/bluesish album I heard a few weeks ago on PBS: Joe Henry’s Blood from Stars.

With a wonderful ensemble of piano, tenor and soprano sax, clarinet, guitars, bowed banjo (whatever that is), keyboards, bass and percussion, and other interesting bits and pieces, all mixed in with the tattered, bluesy voice of Joe Henry, this album tells a world-weary tale in little images of hopes and memories, of melancholy, of loss, and of redemption, all brought together into a darkly enticing, strangely unified, mosaic.

A sad prelude for solo piano, with hints of Chopin and the blues, makes way for the first song, the slow-swinging jazz “The Man I Keep Hid”. It creates the mood that pervades through this whole album – a kind of darkness, but not the sort in which you sit and wallow, but rather one in which you drink a good scotch and dance with your demons.

There’s some marvellous commentary from the ensemble throughout: soulful singing from the saxes and clarinet (all played with unbelievable depth and maturity, by the way, by Joe Henry’s 17 year old son, Levon); soft, whimsical tinkerings here, and jarring discords there, from the piano; simple, lonely notes picked out on the acoustic guitar; angry determined beats from the drums; haunting wails and whines from the electronics.

Everything moves at a slowish pace, but nothing ever drags. These songs take time to tell their story – but the best stories are always worth telling slowly.

In the booklet that accompanies the CD, Joe Henry tells us how the songs developed their own unruly life as he created them, like a family of brothers who finish each other’s sentences and sit up laughing and smoking cigarettes after lights out.

It’s true. As individual and unique as each of these songs is – complete with its own unique DNA – there is clearly not more than one or two degrees of separation between any of them. Listen, for example, to the dark defiance of “Death to the Storm”, the sombre musings of “All Blues Hail Mary”, the grim determination of “Bellwether”, the sad blues of the purely instrumental “Over her Shoulder”. It’s all coming to you from the same cavern of darkness, but everywhere there’s a different voice to be heard, a different tale to be told, and always in words full of bewitching imagery, like in “Stars” – “The birds have picked the blossoms/I think out of spite - /The dogs have taken to the street/Like it was theirs by right./The clouds have drawn a curtain/Where the stars have gone astray/Taking out tomorrow/Like it was yesterday”, all to the grief-stricken screams of the sax.

The music seems to be the sombre and serious, but beautiful, child of a rich parental heritage of blues, jazz and rock, and maybe even a bit of folk blood in there somewhere too. Each of the different genes from this amazing ancestry comes to the fore whenever the moment calls for it and, while this might be a grim, even morose, child, its personality is irresistibly magnetic nonetheless.

Blood from Stars is like a rich, dark forest. It might look a little sinister and foreboding but each of its trees, gnarled and twisted and bent over under the weight of centuries of battering winds and rains, is so full of unexpected wonder that you cannot help but be drawn in. If ever there was wilderness worth being lost in, it’s this.

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