Joe Henry

Imaginary Cities

There are real places, imaginary places, and places where our experience of reality is enhanced by how we imagine those places to have been, or to be. We tour those invisible cities of the mind by walking their actual streets and placing a layer of knowledge and imagination on top of the sights we see. We also move to places which spark the dreams we have for our lives, hoping to make a fantasy life into something real.

If we never make it to such places, or never succeed in them, we can still read about them and hear about them. New recordings from Sondre Lerche and Joe Henry sing us tales of places which are real and imaginary at the same time, Williamsburg and New Orleans. Superficially, there may seem to be a large gap in ambition between the two records, “Heartbeat Radio” and “Blood From Stars,” but the difference is in the personal direction the two musicians take – the results are comparably grand and wonderful.

Sondre Lerche is very much a first person singular musician, not only with everything sung from an “I,” but the sense that it’s actually him, not the singer playing characters in his songs. This makes it easy to accept how incredibly unfair he is, both to his peers and himself, with the opening track ‘Good Luck,’ which is five minutes and fifteen seconds of arguably the greatest pop music made since the start of the rock era; a sweetly muscular, soaringly grand song which builds in layers from shimmering guitars, a rolling Bo Diddley beat and a brilliant string section solo extending the end. On top is Lerche’s dry, clear tenor and his immensely appealing rueful good cheer. The song has everything one could ask for in great pop music; charm, wit, energy, a great beat, a great hook, a bridge that’s out of the ordinary enough to be pleasantly surprising and a real climax. It’s worth the price of the record alone.

It’s no criticism to point out that few will be humming the melody, though. Lerche is an excellent melodist, fitting his lyrics seamlessly and naturally to his tunes, and he can do this because he is an excellent singer, with range and solid pitch. While too many contemporary pop singers are extremely limited as singers, forcing their music into predictably short, clipped phrases and tightly compressed melodic ranges, Lerche can sing wide intervals and long phrases with ease and so can make melodies with a breadth and depth which are uncommon. A good singer should have no problem with the A-B-C#-D-A octave arpeggiation he opens with, but contemporary pop music is so dreary in part because there is so little of this open, generous vocal sunshine brightening the landscape.

After this spectacular opening, “Heatbeat Radio” satisfies. Lerche is a Norwegian transplanted to Williamsburg, a neighborhood which over the last decade has drawn young people from all over the country and the world seeking the comfort and excitement of a place where art, music and fashion are happening, where they will be understood by like-minded peers and dream great things. Call them Hipsters, but they are this generation’s version of the kids who used to head to Greenwich Village, or San Francisco. Williamsburg grows in their imaginations long before they ever face the reality of living there, and Lerche’s is a Williamsburg of the mind, where the girls are lithe and pretty and the boys are charming, sweet and mature in an age-appropriate way. He captures a joie-de-vivre and sense of human capability beyond those on display in “Bored To Death,” and a fundamental optimism which, though it’s at odds with the reality of development in the neighborhood, renews this dream with each song. The album is unswervingly good-natured but not simplistically sweet. There’s a rough sense of the narrative of a charmed, youthful life, but the last third of the record takes a subtle, darker turn. In the wonderful ‘I Guess It’s Gonna Rain Today,’ an understanding and acceptance of failure creeps in, and Lerche expresses a rueful self-awareness: “Oh, the fine line/between street-smartness/and a smart-ass. Oh, the skipping beats of confidence/and the drum-roll/that you thought you could play.” Not everyone who moves to Williamsburg to be in a band can actually play music, not every girl appreciates your charm, and accepting these means seeing there is reality to enjoy along with dreams. The songs which follow, ‘Almighty Moon,’ ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘Goodnight’ have an added sense of weight, toughness and maturity in contrast to the exuberance which preceded them and from which they developed. They bring the album to a completely satisfying close, consolidating the explosive dazzle of the first track into a fully realized emotional journey. “Heartbeat Radio” is not perfect; while it is full of great songs, music and details, not all the details are great – the pedestrian bass line of the witty ‘Like Lazenby’ threatens to pin the music to the ground, and the lyrics of ‘Words & Music’ alternate between fine metaphor and weak, elementary school rhymes. It doesn’t need to be perfect, though, when it’s enduringly joyful.

Williamsburg is not for everyone though, which is just a small loss. New Orleans is not for everyone either, and that is a tragedy. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is obvious enough, a government’s complete disregard for human beings who didn’t fit into their grandiloquently posturing, self-absorbed worldview, but at the core of it is the embrace or rejection of this very country. New Orleans, more than any other single point on the map and place in the imagination, is the essence of America. From it’s very first days, this country was populated by peoples of many cultures, languages and colors, here voluntarily or otherwise. Geographically, this country was first circumscribed then bridged by the Mississippi River, and New Orleans is the fecund mouth which birthed culture and commerce through it into America, a humid polyglot stew of English, Spanish, French, Catholicism, Voodoo, Blues, Jazz, whites, blacks and every color in between, standing as a rebuke to the fetishization of homogenization which those who came later to this country – the Protestant swaths swallowed up by the great plains and selfish, frightened demagogues like Pat Buchanan – anxiously cling to, dearly wishing to keep the map of this great and broad land niggardly small. Reject New Orleans, and one rejects America, while loving the city is as patriotic a thing as one can do.

Joe Henry loves New Orleans, and loves America. He’s made a musical career of describing the America of the imagination, putting together a blend of archaic, modern, rural and urban, white and black musical styles. At his best, he’s magnificent, and he seems to seek a sense of grandeur. Musically and lyrically he strives for archetypal metaphors and unified gestures that could stand as the paragon of American-roots music. It’s ambitious, and he has succeeded, especially with the fully-realized “Scar,” but he’s most often inconsistent, mixing powerful music with songs that don’t quite sustain the weight placed on them, which sound more constructed than played. “Blood From Stars” works completely, though, not only his best record since “Scar,” but a real personal masterpiece for Henry.

It’s a New Orleans record, intentionally or not, and stands as a companion to Allen Toussaint’s “The Bright Mississippi,” which Henry produced. That record is hampered by a self-conscious sense of trying to make a musical point, while this one is completely focussed around a musical core, and flows unerringly forward, like a raft heading down the big river. It’s New Orleans in the way it puts different ingredients together into a stew which comes out being it’s own dish. In the past Henry has gone from country to funk to rock to jazz on different tracks on an album, here each song is a mix of musics together, especially blues and rural funk, with touches of gospel, marches, jazz and rock. Henry carries this off through his songs and through the band he assembles, which includes Marc Ribot, David Piltch, Jay Bellerose and Levon Henry, with a wonderful cameo from Jason Moran opening and closing the album with the gorgeous ‘Light No Lamp When The Sun Comes Down’ (Henry has great taste in sidemen, previously employing Don Byron, Brad Mehldau and Ornette Coleman). The music lives and breaths, everything works together, the rhythms, harmonies and cadences seem ideal for each song and phrase and each song seems the ideal vehicle for Henry’s richly colored, warbley singing. He uses specific details which indicate his desire to make something clearly and powerfully American, his imagined America, but the details are just that; accessories which pull the whole outfit together, not arguments to make. The lyric “Of briar and roses” in ‘This Is My Favorite Cage’ points to a specific and important American tradition, but the song is Henry’s own creation, the detail merely conveys his context. Likewise the tango blues ‘Death To The Storm,’ which lays out Henry’s response to a real New Orleans musical tradition. As on previous records, he sprinkles samples in the background, and these bits of old-time music and Paul Robeson provide a sonic background for this imagined country. The record has a full, rich bottom and an insistent, serious tone, but Henry sounds liberated and light-hearted, even on the slow ballads, as if he’s found himself in a state of complete mastery of all the music he has worked to apprehend over the years, and this made his way to his true voice. This is nowhere more clear than on the incredible ‘All Blues Hail Mary,’ which begins with the greatest rural blues riff one is likely to ever hear, and maintains the blues feel and structure while eliding in enough gospel harmonies for the music to have the delicate tang of funk and fervor needed to match the lyrics: “All blues sing of love and death/and you as chances yet to take . . . All blues and grace by God/And I will have to learn the rest.” Henry’s disposition is darker than Lerche’s, the music much funkier and bluesier, but his sense of determination allows no despair. This is music which pushes mountains, tiny bit by tiny bit, until a country moves. [Watch/listen to a performance at KCRW here]