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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Major talent, regular civilian

Big break? Who needs it? Joe Henry's happy churning out some of his best songs yet.

September 17, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Joe Henry has released 10 critically acclaimed albums, hired on as the producer of several prestigious projects (soul veterans Bettye Lavette and Solomon Burke, new folk heroine Mary Gauthier) and can name-drop music buddies such as Van Dyke Parks, Bill Frisell and Loudon Wainwright III.

Nonetheless, the singer-songwriter is still a connoisseur's flavor, remaining largely under the radar of the literary-pop audience that could be filing him alongside its Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen collections.

There's probably no reason to think that album No. 10, "Civilians," which came out last week, will change that. Even though it contains some of his best work, it's the same Henry -- tart delivery, erudite lyrics, a flavorful mix of folk, jazz, blues, R&B and cabaret.

There's also a touch of American standards. Onstage at the Largo on Friday, Henry called "I Will Write My Book" his Hoagy Carmichael song, and it's not impossible to imagine Frank Sinatra singing the ballad "Love Is Enough."

In his 90-minute set at the tiny club, a warm-up for showcase dates in New York and Boston, the South Pasadena resident didn't strain for a breakthrough.

He seemed comfortable in his skin, accepting of his limitations as a singer -- he sounds like a wiry Randy Newman -- and confident that the songs he and his four musicians were dealing were more than enough.

Those Waits and Cohen comparisons are apt. Like theirs, his imagery flickers between concerns of the heart and of society. But Henry's scenarios of intrigue in exotic locales evoke another great L.A. songwriter, Warren Zevon.

One of the few pre-"Civilians" songs he played Friday was "This Afternoon," a vignette of characters around a Havana hotel swimming pool on the brink of the revolution. Henry described it as the "seed" for "Civilians," perhaps an allusion to the new album's political undercurrents.

The title song -- with its uneasy mix of celebrants and soldiers, and the ominously alluring refrain "Life is short, but by the grace of God, the night is long" -- is a companion piece of sorts to "This Afternoon."

"Wave" is an absorbing portrait of a soldier in a deteriorating revolution, while the multilayered "Civil War" can be heard, on one of those levels, as an account of current events.

The tour de force, though, was "Our Song," an ambitious lament for the state of the nation that uses a most unlikely scene -- the narrator comes across Willie Mays shopping for garage-door springs at a Home Depot in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- as the platform for a remarkable meditation on "this frightful and this angry land."

Playing it as his encore Friday, Henry joked that if he were the Boss, it would be time for "Thunder Road," then quietly added that maybe this is his "Thunder Road." And that was no joke.

--

richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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