Henrys Tiny Voices explores the dark side
Theres a certain term I use, not favorably: radio music. Its music that sounds as if it were made with the sole purpose of getting it played on commercial radio. Its cookie-cutter rock n roll; its one distinctive characteristic is that it has no distinctive characteristic. There is no regional flavor, no quirks, nothing experimental. Most of all, it sounds like lots of other stuff that gets played on the radio. Not much of a radio listener, I dont have an extensive list of examples, but Train and Third Eye Blind stick in my mind as particularly representative and successful makers of radio music. Most such acts arent around long enough to make a lasting impression on my ears.Following are reviews of recent rock CDs not formed by a cookie cutter.Joe Henry, Tiny Voicesproduced by Henry (Anti-)Joe Henry is not exactly known to the general public for anything. But if he were, it would be for being Madonnas brother-in-law, for writing one of Madonnas hits, and for producing Dont Give Up on Me, the acclaimed 2002 record by Solomon Burke.To a small percentage of music fans, Henry is one of the finest record-makers of the day. Everything about Henry his hoarse voice, the ghostly echo he puts into his recordings, the cryptic lyrics, his use of jazz players such as Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau, the sprawling songs that are the antithesis of catchy is indicative of an artist reaching for something all their own. Henry treads ground that is common only to himself. Henrys music has never been sunny, and on Tiny Voices it is as foreboding as ever. On the title track, Henry repeatedly promises Im falling for you. A nice sentiment, but with images of Gods awful grace and the town has gone to seed, and a circuslike cacophony of clarinet and pounding drums, that falling is a fearsome thing. Similarly in Loves You Madly, Henry mixes desire with death (The ground wants you back/the ground wants you badly). Henry sings over distorted keyboards and clarinet, making for a twisted lounge effect, an ideal setting for the lyrics.Joining Henry in making this black-hole bliss are jazz players Don Byron (clarinet and saxophone) and Ron Miles (trumpet).Jay Farrar, Terroir Blues(Act/Resist Records)Former Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt singer Jay Farrar goes to great lengths to separate himself from the alt-country pack. Terroir Blues is 23 tracks long, including the six takes of the brief instrumental oddity Space Junk, and the alternate versions that make up the last portion of the album.Even apart from its odd structure, Terroir Blues is several steps from ordinary. Lyrically, the album is minimalist phrases patched together, coming as though from a dream. There is the repeated suggestion of something lost, or at least in decline, but Farrar balances it with glimmers of hope: In Hard Is the Fall, he sings, Hard is the fall/But your heart is still brand-new.The sound is where Farrar makes his mark with Terroir Blues. Farrars soft acoustic guitar and middle-American drawl is joined by lap steel, electric slide sitar and cello. With plenty of air between the instruments and Farrars the only voice on the album, Terroir Blues conveys a sense of open space and isolation. While its meant to be taken as an album, Terroir Blues has one shining stand-alone song in the wistful travelogue California, which I could actually see getting some radio time.Matthew Ryan, Regret Over the Wiresproduced by Doug Lancio, Mark Robertson & Ryan (Hybrid)If you cant find a sound of your very own, the next best thing would be to borrow from someone most people have never heard. Thats seems to be the route Nashville-based Matthew Ryan takes on Regret Over the Wires. The opening song, Return to Me, sounds so much like Daniel Lanois, with the gravelly whisper and the atmospheric production, that I had to look twice to see if it wasnt a Lanois CD. But Ryan is reasonably safe, as most people know Lanois as a producer of albums by U2, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan rather than an artist in his own right.To be fair, Ryan adds something to the music. Regret Over the Wires is one good song after another, most all of them about going to the depths and fighting your way back up. Halfway through, however, Ryans hoarse voice has become monotonous and sounds forced, especially compared to Henry and Farrar.And if its the Daniel Lanois sound you seek, check out his recent Shine, a better album than Ryans.Ryan Adams, Rock N Rollproduced by James Barber (Lost Highway)Ryan Adams last two albums last years Demolition and 2001s Gold were folk-rock masterpieces. With their mellow acoustic guitars and sweet melodies, they had a major radio presence.Adams changes direction sharply here. Rock N Roll is as its title promises sneering, in-your-face music with thrashing electric guitar, pounding drums and vocals, all of which have more connection to U2 than to Adams recent past. Rock N Roll is a ballsy move for a singer who has made his name. Much of Adams imagery has a punk attitude to it, reflecting loathing of the world and himself. On 1974, he sings in a thrashed-out voice, Its raining like a nosebleed, cigarettes and sweets/… Bloody as the day I was born. Wish You Were Here, which pays some tribute to 80s new wave, Adams concludes Its all a bunch of shit and theres nothing to do around here/Its totally fucked up/… Wish you were here.Rock N Roll might get radio play because of Adams past works. And if it does, it will sound a lot better than most everything else in that wasteland.
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