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5 new CDs: Joe Henry, Rufus Wainwright,
Leona Naess, Shelby Lynne, Judith Owen
All in the family way
by Mark Anderson

h sure, it can irk the rest of us – the notion that people with the right family ties get all the best breaks.

No average Joe: Madonna's brother-in-law releases his ninth album. ["joe henry," by Mary Bergherr]

But deep down we all know that things are rarely so simple. Anybody's family can be both a blessing and a curse – often on the same damn day. And sometimes even the connected ones have to slug it out just like everybody else.

Still, whether by genetics, environment or a salient combination of both, there's logic in the possibility that folks with such an inside track are often inclined to reveal unambiguous natural talent. That doesn't guarantee they'll be heard.

Here, as convoluted evidence, are five strong recent albums – by Joe Henry, Rufus Wainwright, Leona Naess, Shelby Lynne and Judith Owen – that all stand up to lots of listening.

Joe Henry's Tiny Voices
Joe Henry went to high school with Madonna and married her sister. More recently, Madonna had a hit with Henry's "Stop" (that she rearranged as "Don't Tell Me"). But Henry doesn't pander, and Tiny Voices is no more likely to make him a household name than his eight prior discs.

Joe Henry: Tiny Voices.

Ever since his boxing career flamed out some 20 years ago, Henry has evolved as an eclectic jazz-tinged folkie with a lively bent for exotic cabaret. His last two albums feature horns by Ornette Coleman and Don Byron.

The recent Tiny Voices is an atmospheric 12-song journey through humid back alleys in faraway locales. Henry draws subtle shadings from keyboards, woodwinds and brass, while his words seem to evoke eloquent passages from unwritten novels where everything is timeless and nothing sounds forced. The middle of "Dirty Magazine" holds one of Henry's endless examples:

Sometimes I wish I was king / And held the end of every string
The fear, the prize, the mortal stain / Of what will come of this
For now I'll let all chance unwind / To keep our secret hearts entwined
And if I choose to see this as a sign / It surely is

Yet, his late-September show at Dante's was impressive for opposite reasons. The 75-minute set featured Henry as part of a simple guitar/bass/drum trio that eschewed the detailed production of those recent recordings. The result was a showcase of fundamental strengths – bandleader, strummer, singer – along with a crisp set of songs, an occasional burst of mysterious, twangy guitar and the bare bones of consummate skill.

The 2001 release, Scar, is the superior effort – and probably a better place to begin. Which is not unlike saying New York is better than Minneapolis or San Francisco. Or Portland.

But aside from all else, holidays can probably get pretty wild at the Henry place.

Rufus Wainwright: Want One.

Rufus Wainwright's Want One
Rufus Wainwright also has elaborate connections: He's the self-outed gay lovechild of two iconoclastic '70s singer/songwriters, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and his grandfather (Loudon's dad) wrote and edited for Life magazine.

Rufus is good with words, too. But what really defines him is a special gift for majestic melodies – frequently displayed to full effect on Want One, his third release. "Natasha" is breathtakingly beautiful, while "Go or Go Ahead," "Harvester of Hearts" and "Oh What a World" aren't far behind.

"My phone's on vibrate for you," he begins in another, brandishing an easy knack for distilling new perspective from everyday occurrence.

The album makes exquisite use of strings and orchestra, but does suffer slightly from an overall sameness in tempo and tenor. Wainwright, however, often gets it right, and when he does his songs really soar. He's only 30, Want One is unusually solid and his future seems assuredly bright.

Leona Naess: Leona Naess.

Leona Naess' Leona Naess
Leona Naess' dad is Diana Ross' ex-husband, but don't let that scare you.

Naess' self-titled third album is smart, breezy pop that imparts lyrical depth along with subtle hooks made of piano and guitar.

"He's Gone" and "Home" sound like an insanely catchy pair of hits, while "Calling," "Dues to Pay" and "Yes, It's Called Desire" give the 11-song disc some songwriterly grist.

While Naess' previous recordings have their moments ("New York Baby" from Comatised, the 2000 debut, is especially worthwhile), she's found a high-water mark in 2003. Not yet 30, Naess is an intriguing songwriting singer who also holds serious promise.

Shelby Lynne: Identity Crisis.

Shelby Lynne's Identity Crisis
The tough, tragic, well-documented story of the Moorer sisters is that Shelby Lynne and Allison were teen-agers when they watched their music-minded father kill their mother, then turn the gun on himself.

That would be enough to make a basket case – or a country singer – out of anyone.

Shelby and Allison both took the country route. These days Allison sings with Kid Rock, while Shelby branches into pop, jazz, blues, rock, roots, swing and then some.

Lynne's ninth disc, Identity Crisis, is better than 2000's stilted and over-praised I Am Shelby Lynne. In other words, anyone who liked the latter is likely to love the former. "Telephone," "10 Rocks," "If I Were Smart," "I'm Alive" and "Lonesome" are diverse and addictive, while the standout, "Gotta Be Better," contains a breathless vocal passage that almost tickles.

Overall, Identity Crisis displays a relaxed, authentic intensity that goes beyond country and on into the realm of popular song. It's like stumbling into some out-of-the-way roadhouse and finding a crackerjack local band with big-city flair.

Judith Owen: Twelve Arrows.

Judith Owen's Twelve Arrows
Judith Owen's husband is bass-playing actor Harry Shearer, storied star of "This is Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind," "Waiting for Guffman" and more. A relaxed and smiling Shearer even filled in as Owen's bassist for a pair of October Portland shows.

And, except for widespread popularity, Owen seems to have it all: eloquent songs, expressive piano, gorgeous voice, spirited restraint. Her cheeky British charm provides uproarious between-song stories that give vivid context to the mature subject matter of the songs.

But even without the context, Owen's recent album is an apt reflection of her adept affinity for words and music. Remove the overwrought duet with Julia Fordham and Twelve Arrows starts out with an elegant six-song study in pop, gospel and several variations of barrelhouse jazz.

"Walking the Dog," "You're Not Here Anymore" and "Some Arrows Go In Deep" are unusually fine, while "Poseidon," the album-ending duet with Richard Thompson, recalls the pure beauty of traditional Welsh folk.

If further testament is needed, Dave Frishberg, Portland's patriarch of songwriting and jazz piano, took in one of the local shows. Clearly, although Owen might be a little short on listeners (fewer than 100 attended the two Portland shows), she has plenty to say.

But maybe it all goes to show what happens to the ones with the high-profile kin. Because sometimes even the best voices get lost in the din.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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